There be dragons!

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Medea, tragedy and the Triduum


Reading Euripides' "Medea" during the Triduum.
Tragedy allows us to do three things:

  1. appreciate more the goods we have
  2. experience suffering w/o having to go through it ourselves
  3. purge ourselves of the tension of bad emotions

Thus it brings us to a better place by instilling in us

  1. self-knowledge
  2. the sense of pity
  3. gratitude

Thus the whole community was purged of the weight of suffering, anger, and pain; a practice which goes back thousands of years, perhaps beginning with an actual human as the scapegoat and only later by transference becoming an animal. In this sense it was more expedient that one lamb die than that the whole community perished. Before it perished, the little goat would lift up its head and cry out to heaven singing out its sorrow at the necessity of its own demise; a goat song; which in Greek is "trag - oidos".

Thus it brings us to a better place by instilling in us

In short, wisdom.

All education & art (perhaps all life) should be geared toward wisdom; a greater knowing of ourselves - gnothi seauton, as the Greeks said. Tragedy accomplishes this by allowing us to suffer vicariously without actually suffering;

    "drasanta pathos, pathei mathos"

    "the experience causes suffering, the suffering brings wisdom"

The First Sufferer of the tragedy, the proto-agonist, is one with whom we identify, allowing the drasanta to occur. Normally a human actor, used to be a goat (or a lamb). In the Ancient World the little goat would be painted, covered in ribbons and notes about the sins or sufferings of the village, and sacrificed (thrown off a cliff or eviscerated).

In tragedy we are encouraged to see the other as ourself, appreciate more our own blessings, become more aware of the sin and devastation we have caused. Sure it is sad, and it ought to cause us pain and sorrow even knowing that eventually the pain will pass over like a storm and be gone; but the point is that we fully enter into the mystery, not gloss over it with platitudes and self-congratulating affirmations; "there is offense, Horatio, and much of it."

We have to experience the Tenebrae facta sunt if ever we are to really appreciate the Haec est dies. And even though we rejoice that the pagan message of the goat song was christened by the "Christos anesti", still we have to experience the storm in all its rage, dying to ourselves that we might truly live.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Humpty Dumpty Broken

Humpty dumpty sate on a wall,
Humpti dumpti had a great fall;
Threescore men and threescore more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before.

I have always maintained that the most important aspects of learning are entirely useless.  Utility ought not be the measuring stick for why we learn these things - instead it should be love.

I was interested whilst teaching about the Scholastic Debate to reflect on the original structure of the Liberal Arts and find that there is a logical connection between the Debate and the structure.  The original LA did not include the mechanical arts, law, business, or carpentry, but it also did not include history, poetry, literature, or art.  These were the later products, perhaps, of the LA, but the Liberal Arts were two sets;
  1. the Trivium
  2. the Quadrivium
The Trivium was HOW to learn.  The Quadrivium was WHAT to learn (as in the most important things the mind could focus on).  Trivium consisted of three disciplines
  1. Grammar
  2. Logic
  3. Rhetoric
Which taught the methods that could be applied to any form of learning.  
  • Grammar was not just ABCs, but rather was understanding the inner language of whatever discipline one entered, be it math, law, history, carpentry, plumbing.  
  • Logic included formal logic, yes, but was also learning the connections between the principles of the discipline; how does A relate to B? how does B connect with C?  how do all three work together?  
  • Rhetoric trained in how to read, write and speak - but more to the point - trained how to express oneself in the language of the discipline and make comprehensible (and attractive) to others that language.
When I first read about this in my early 20s (in Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Corbett) it made sense to me, but for years I could not fathom why on earth (or heaven) the Medievals organized the Quadrivium in the way they did?  Why not have history as a thing to be studied?  Why not poetry?  Why not Calculus?
When reading Josef Pieper's "Scholasticism" the other day it dawned on me why this structure was considered the more important aspect of the Liberal Arts.
Pieper points out that the Quadrivium consisted of
  1. Arithmetic
  2. Geometry
  3. Astronomy
  4. Music
This is primarily a Platonic organization based on the Divided Line (Eikasia, Pistis, Dianoia, Noesis) as outlined in The Republic & is the mind's ascent to be able to perceive the LOGOS (i.e. the pattern of the mind of God).  

So essentially what the Medievals were saying was the greatest thing for the soul to consider was this mathematical pattern upon which all the world was based.  Studying it led to the ability to use it (Architecturally, in music, in government, in sculpture, in poetry and prose) and also gave growth and enrichment to the soul BUT the main reason for studying it was for its own sake; a thing of beauty to be known and loved.

The Realists and Nominalists, then, were debating about the efficacy of this sort of education.  The Realists held that there was something real existing in another world to which the mind could ascend through study and contemplation.  Nominalists held that the thing to be known and loved didn't really exist outside of this world but was a perspective or viewpoint to be gained about the world which allowed men to live well (a utilitarian stance).  As long as the two viewpoints were in debate or discussion with each other there was a healthy confidence and output to the society of the Medieval world.  When that debate broke down (afterd Tempier's condemnations in 1277) and when the world was shaken by a series of upheavals in the 14th century, Europe devolved (as Pieper noted) into the two camps of rational atheism and irrational belief.  And that was the beginning (and end) of the Modern World as noted by Guardini.  Humpty Dumpty (the golden egg of mystical religious thought) had been broken and not all the king's horses nor all the king's men could put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Thracian Hero & Saint George

In a conversation last night with a most excellent colleague it was mistakenly perceived that I was a St. George denier.  This is false.  I do not deny St. George or any of the saints (including Christopher).  My point is not about whether there was or was not an historical man attached to the legends of St. George, but rather how we tend to depict our legends using known imagery.  We tap into the imagery familiar to the culture around us in order to enhance an element of the character, or to highlight an aspect of the story, or to embody a philosophy through the character.  

As a secular example. compare the two movies, "A Night to Remember" and "Titanic". 

Was there a large ship that sank after smacking an iceberg?  Absolutely.  The first movie, however, emphasizes the nobility and self sacrifice of the doomed passengers.  The second movie, though having far more action, emphasizes the savage and mercenary nature of the passengers fighting for survival.  The first focuses on the sinking and aftermath.  The second focuses for two hours on a doomed romance between two people of unequal social standing, then a big action sequence at the end.  Both are using images we are familiar with (the sinking) but are emphasizing different aspects, changing the story, or focusing on details to convey their philosophy.  This is true also in the poems "The Convergence of the Twain" by Thomas Hardy 

The Convergence of the Twain

(Lines on the loss of the "Titanic")

            In a solitude of the sea
            Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

            Steel chambers, late the pyres
            Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

            Over the mirrors meant
            To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

            Jewels in joy designed
            To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

            Dim moon-eyed fishes near
            Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?" ...

            Well: while was fashioning
            This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

            Prepared a sinister mate
            For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

            And as the smart ship grew
            In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

            Alien they seemed to be;
            No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

            Or sign that they were bent
            By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

            Till the Spinner of the Years
            Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
and "It was Sad" by some Boy Scouts where the first uses the subject matter to have a somber reflection on fate, the second to make a darkly humorous campfire song.

Oh, they built the ship Titanic, to sail the ocean blue.
For they thought it was a ship that water would never go through.
It was on its maiden trip, that an iceberg hit the ship.
It was sad when the great ship went down.

It was sad, so sad.
It was sad, so sad.
It was sad when the great ship went down (to the bottom of the....)
Uncles and aunts, little children lost their pants.
It was sad when the great ship went down.

Oh the captain smiled and winked
As the ship began to sink
And he said "The fish are surely going to stink"
So he S.O.S.ed the Lord
And he jumped right overboard
It was sad when the great ship went down

Repeat chorus

They were not far from the shore, 'bout a thousand miles or more,
When the rich refused to associate with the poor.
So they threw them down below, where they were the first to go.
It was sad when the great ship went down.

Repeat chorus

Oh, the heroes saved the weak, as the ship began to leak.
And the band on deck played on.
With, "Nearer my God to Thee", they were swept into the sea.
It was sad when the great ship went down.

Repeat chorus

Oh they built a sister ship, Called the S.S. Kunatah
And they knew it was a ship that would never get very far.
So, they christened it with GOP,
And it sunk with a Ker-Plop!
It was glad when the sad ship went down.

Repeat chorus

They threw the lifeboats over, in the dark and stormy sea.
And the band began to play "Oh Give Thy Soul To Thee."
Little children wept and cried as they left their mother's side.

Repeat chorus

Oh the moral of this story, the moral of this song,
Is that one shouldn't go where he does not belong.
For in the good Lord's eyes, you're as good as other guys,
It was sad when the great ship when down.

Repeat chorus

Oh the moral of this story, is plain as you can see.
Never trust a sailor on the high sea.
He'll call you honey-darling, and say that he'll be true,
But when the ship goes down he'll say the hell/heck with you.

Repeat chorus

After last chorus, there is an extra "so sad, too bad" spoken-sung, and this:

It sunk
Hunk a junk
In the sea
without me
Hee hee hee.

Similarly with the St. George imagery - the artists took the story of a real man, united it with the image of the Thracian hero, replacing the pig with the dragon, and thus depicted the triumph of good over evil.  The historical veracity of the story's details was not my point (though I doubt there were once scaly lizards roaming about devouring virginal girls).  

But the depiction of George on a horse, with a spear or sword, soundly trouncing the bestial beast uses the familiar pre-Christian image of the Thracian hero.  This element is most pronounced when we see it transformed into other depictions that add new elements, keep some elements but dispense with others.

How the image came to England and became the rallying cry of Henry V is still not entirely clear to me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Alice and the Dragon

In his novel "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", Lewis Carroll has his young heroine, Alice, meeting a caterpillar in chapter V, of all things.

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. 

The Caterpillar, like many of the characters in Carroll's story, is a puerile version of the much more powerful and dangerous archetype of the dragon.  Like the dragon he seems imperious and threatening to Alice.  He coils about as a dragon would and blows smoke out of his mouth.  Even in Tenniel's illustration one can easily see that the caterpillar is coiled about himself, dragon fashion.

Tenniel also cleverly weaves in the deceptive nature of the dragon in that the upper part of the caterpillar seems to be the profile of a face when actually they are feet on the caterpillar.  Like images seen in clouds, the viewer perceives the feet as nose and chin.  

Tenniel's illustration also has the coil of the hookah which the caterpillar is smoking curling about him in a golden spiral.  This image in mathematics reflects the Fibonacci sequence and is frequently used as an image of the infinity of creation based on the pattern of the LOGOS.

In that pattern a person easily can lose their own individuality and have no answer to the question "who are you?"  Thus Alice struggles to respond to the Caterpillar's initial discouraging question;

“I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.

“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”

Her difficulty knowing who she is reflects her current confusion in growing up.  The story of "Alice in Wonderland" is itself a story about those difficulty years of early youth when one is no longer a child and not quite an adult - an era which the Ancient World referred to as the chrysalis (or golden) era of life.  In this stage a person ceases happily crawling about the world eating everything, retreats inwardly, tends to isolate themselves & weave a shell around them, and no longer knows who they are.  Not quite adult and not quite child they find themselves in a liminal state of metamorphosis.

Well, that's the image, the life of the butterfly, used in the Ancient World to represent the transformation from child to adult.  

As a child one is oblivious to the world around them, rolling blindly from one good meal to the next.  As a youth, anxiety, pain, suffering all begin to force one to reckon with the difficulties of the world.  The natural reaction is confusion and a tendency to retreat into a thick coat of armor about oneself (grunts, loud music, and shuffling of feet are forms of armor). Witness Alice's confusion at not being able to "remember things as I used—and I don’t keep the same size for ten minutes together!”  Her inability to say correctly the poem about youth and age ("You are old, Father William") bears witness to the confusion of youth.

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
    “And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
    Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
    “I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
    Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,
    And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door—
    Pray, what is the reason of that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
    “I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment—one shilling the box—
    Allow me to sell you a couple?”

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
    For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak—
    Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
    And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
    Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
    That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose—
    What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
    Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
    Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”

As the caterpillar replies, "That is not said right."  Indeed, Alice is in a very confusing spot in her life, and like most young people, she covers her confusion with a mixture of petulant retreat, over-confident hubris, and tears.

Thank God for us all that this stage is transitory!  Indeed, during that period of being in a cocoon change is occurring; questions are asked; the mind is actively observing and the soul is processing; until finally from the chrysalis emerges the adult, like a beautiful flying dragon of a thing.

The advice of the caterpillar is to eat from "both sides" of the mushroom.  There are many who interpret this as a narcotic reference (Jefferson Airplane is one) and indeed the Ancient World saw narcotics as a way to jump start the maturity process.    

But we have to consider also that the circle of the mushroom is like life itself; the spiral made static.  To grab hold of it "from both sides" and then to eat of it is to eat of both the dark and the light; the bitter and the sweet; the wine and the gall; the good jelly beans and the licorice.

And perhaps that is what makes one truly an adult - the recognition that life is both bitter and sweet.  

“One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.”

As a child we want the world to be only sweetness and candy, everyone our friend, God in his place and Santa Claus as Christmas.  Part of the shock of entering into youth is finding that there is great bitterness in the world.  Maturity comes from accepting the bitterness and learning to balance the two sides of life and thus not grow "too big" or "too small".

It certainly seems a turning point for Alice in her "journey underground" as after this encounter with the dragon she seems more able to deal with the creatures of Wonderland (wonder being the basis of philosophy) with authority and confidence, progressing eventually toward her adult role as Persephone, queen of the underworld.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Macbeth and the cascading analog

Sometimes when thinking about literature or art you have to coin a phrase to capture the idea you are thinking about.  I don't know, pardon my lacuna of knowledge, any phrase to describe the use of successive symbols to create relationships of ideas in a work.  Consequently I'm using the term "cascading analog" and opposing it to "horizontal analog".  

Analog is the use of one thing to signify another.  It is the connecting of ideas, saying "this equals this" leading to greater understanding.  So for instance, saying that Thomas Jackson is "like a stone wall" doesn't mean that he is low to the ground or that he has loam on him but that he is impenetrable like a stone wall.  This is an analog called simile.  When we say "She's as sweet as Tupelo honey, like honey from the bee" we are using simile.  

When on the other hand we say, "Ted is a mule" we don't mean that he has four legs and grey fur - rather that Ted is stubborn and ornery.  This is the analog called metaphor.  

Simile and Metaphor are the two major forms of analog in human language and thought.  Our whole process of thought, in fact, is based upon analog since we create mental images to comprehend anything & build a network of mental images when trying to make sense of something new.  

Sometimes when a poet or artist uses such analog they extend it over the length of a soliloquy, poem, or entire work.  So for instance Shakespeare compares his beloved to a summer's day in sonnet 18.  Similarly, George Herbert in "The Pulley" uses the metaphor of being pulled up and pulled down by our strengths and weaknesses.

Sometimes the analog is explicit (obvious) as in Robert Burns' "Red, Red Rose" or the Rolling Stones' "She's a Rainbow".  Sometimes the analog is implicit (hidden) as in Wilbur's "Death of a Toad" or Melville's "Moby Dick" (which if you've read it before you are 30 you probably have read it wrong!).  

"Horizontal analog", therefore, is when a series of related images appear over the course of a (longer) work.  This type of analogy operates similar to how a dream might unfold, presenting the same idea in various forms.  Plato, for instance, uses horizontal analog in his work “The Republic” presenting his idea of justice (as a ratio between the lesser and the greater) in one form after another.  Here the artist says that justice looks like this, but more than that it looks like this, and again it looks like more than that, it looks like this, and &c.

“Cascading analog” operates like a waterfall of images, not seemingly related to each other and happening in quick succession rather than drawn out over the course of a long work.  This series of quick flowing images normally occurs with a monumental event of some kind and indicates that the speaker is trying to deal with something new and overwhelming.  Monumental experiences in life tend to overwhelm us and inundate us with new and difficult to process impressions.  Like a combat veteran trying to explain to civilians what warfare is like, or like a survivor of cancer or someone who has experienced a natural disaster like a tsunami, they express the immensity of the event by trying to connect it to the experiences they already have and with which they are familiar.

Shakespeare uses horizontal analog throughout his play, “Macbeth”, connecting images of water, darkness, sleep, dismemberment throughout the play.  The real question of the play is not whether Macbeth is a murderer, or what a bad king looks like, or even what damnation looks like.  Rather it is the question of the loss of meaning or purpose in life.  How does one fight against purposelessness?  For Shakespeare this seems to have been a perennial question appearing in numerous different works.  Next to Hamlet, Macbeth is probably the bard’s greatest answer to this nominalist question.

During the course of the play Macbeth chooses to act in such a way to secure a permanent hold on happiness through power.  His choices, however, lead him deeper into blood, chaos, and madness.  By the end of play he has lost everything including even the “eternal jewel” of mankind (his soul) which he seems to have “Given to the common enemy of man” (Satan).  With his wife dead, his friends and allies fleeing from him (“fly false thanes and mingle with the English epicures”), and a massive army besieging his gates Macbeth seems to be at the end of his tether.  This might appear to be for most an obvious consequence of the choices leading to damnation & might evoke in some audience members a schadenfreude and self-congratulation that they, at least, are not damned.

In a masterful use of images, however, the poet suggests that such a response is shallow, unreflective, and not the point of Macbeth’s final trajectory.  The Bard uses cascading analog to symbolize the overwhelming finality of Macbeth’s ultimate destruction.  Faced in Act V, scene 5 with the reality of Lady Macbeth’s death and the loss of his entire life going into the sewer he utters the great “tomorrow” speech.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

At first read the comments on life seem a jumble of unrelated images.  But as a cascading analog they work to describe the immensity of what Macbeth is finally realizing in the play; the ultimate conclusion of the path he has chosen.  Each image relates to each successive image analogously.  First, the pace of the opening line hangs on the drudgery of the word “and” – yet again waking up to another tomorrow w/o hope, change, or forgiveness.  This series of tomorrows sets up a triune relationship between images (similar to the trinity of the weird sisters, the murderers, and the three major assassinations of the play).  Days creep by in a petty pace (notice the dental alliteration like spitting; p,p – d,d); time is likened to a record book (the Domesday book) of syllables already set down by fate (or “wyrd” in Anglo-Saxon).  Past history is then compared to a candle or lantern leading fools to their death (again the dental alliteration of d,d; “day to day” “dusty death”).  Humans are all fools, in this vision, if they follow this lantern, namely the pattern of human history w/o providential redemption.  Indeed, the examination of human history w/o the lens of salvation (“The fool in his heart has said, ‘there is no god’” says the Psalm 14) seems to indicate a bleak and violent emptiness to our existence. 

Macbeth’s utterance of “Out, out, brief candle!” then echoes (in a use of horizontal analog) Lady Macbeth’s earlier utterance of “out, damned spot! Out, I say!” in Act 5, scene 1.  The utterance also ushers in the final three analogs of the soliloquy wherein Macbeth compares life to

  1. A walking shadow
  2. A poor player (actor)
  3. A tale (told by an idiot)

This leads a reader to question “how is life like a walking shadow?”  “how is life like an actor?”, “how is life like a tale?”  Shakespeare uses metaphorical analog here, not simile suggesting that the intensity of Macbeth’s vision.  Life, for him, has become a mere phantom of what it should be; a ghost, the place where the sun is not.  Though it moves around and walks, nevertheless it is as ephemeral as the thaumatapoioi, the shadows, in Plato’s cave image.  Such an empty, dark, lifeless existence resembles a bad actor who struts and frets a brief time (an hour) on the stage of the world (“all the world’s a stage” – “As You Like It” Act II, scene 7).  The double meaning is that the poor player is also a bad sport; someone who in losing is petty, small-souled, pusillanimous in his paces.  If life doesn’t get its way it takes its ball and goes home.  Instead of the brilliant and joyful experience of life which we each hope for (honour, love, obedience, troops of friends) this vision of life in the septic tank of hell becomes an empty repetitive tale full of noise and anger but meaningless.  The vision expressed also implies that the maker of the world, God, makes only shadows, writes only bad plays, is an idiot in his creations.  The end of such a vision is itself, hell, nothingness, the Tartarus or cave of shadows.  It is an overwhelming vision of existence without life so immense that Macbeth cannot succinctly express it. 

His is a vision that has abandoned salvific realism for materialistic nominalism.  Whether he fights against this vision is the real crux of the play the outcome of which is ambiguous.  Does Macbeth realizing that he has been “tied to the stake and cannot fly” defiantly reject the deep damnation of his own taking off?  Even realizing that, “Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane, / And thou (MacDuff) opposed, being of no woman born,” Macbeth proclaims that, “I will try the last.”

Indeed, there is something valiant and almost salvific when Macbeth proclaims

Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'

Is “the last” which MacDuff defies the “last syllable of recorded time”?  is it the last obstacle to his own damnation?  Or is it the last thing opposing his attempt at total rule?  It is at least, or so it seems, a return to martial virtue where Macbeth so excelled at the beginning of the play.  Though his bitter statement that he 

will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet,
And to be baited with the rabble's curse

Might be the ignoble and damning utterance of Satan’s “non serviam” it might also prove his salvation.  He refuses to submit to his doppelganger and adversary, MacDuff, and in that at least he is not damned.  His rejuvenated martial prowess offers him some sense of meaning or purpose to life.

Perhaps the play is not suggesting that Macbeth represents an obvious or explicit metaphor for what damnation looks like.  Instead, perhaps the play is offering a vision of one man dealing with the consequences of his own horrible choices, loss of manhood and meaning in life, and being “cow'd (of his) better part of man” – an experience so overwhelming that it defies being captured in words.  Against such a tsunami of horrors, whether they be of our own making or others, perhaps the only noble response is defiant endurance and opposition and in that sense perhaps Macbeth finds salvation after all.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The City of God and the city of men (or immanentizing the eschaton)

One of  the most significant works of European culture has to be De Civitatis Dei (The City of God) by Saint Augustine of Hippo.

The Roman Empire was at its height in 117AD. Roman culture, language, mannerisms, law, architecture, food, government, military permeated the culture so deeply that Europe remained essentially "Roman" for the next 2000 years.

In 293 Diocletian split the Empire into four quadrants, each ruled by an Emperor. This was called the Tetrarchy and was a bureaucratic decision made to better manage the immense empire.

It didn't work, though, and the Empire eventually dissolved into an Eastern hemisphere & a Western hemisphere. The East remained strong and survived until the 1400s, but the West began to fall apart.

At the same time a movement called "The Way" began to gain great support from the lower classes of Roman society. Followers of "The Way" professed the Good News (Gospel) that all people were loved by God regardless of sex, wealth, power, class, or past sins & that all had been redeemed by the sacrifice of the blood of Christ (the anointed one). They wrote down their accounts of Christ's life sometime in the 2nd century AD but had no official creed, doctrine or churches and were deemed illegal by Roman society.

Christians suffered great persecution under Roman law, especially during the reign of Diocletian. Followers of the way were constantly insulted (called "Christians" which at the time was a put down), barred from office and denied jobs, arrested, fined, or executed in the Colosseum by gladiators or beasts. It was rumored even that Christians participated in cannibalism in their secret (mysterion) rituals.

In 313, however, Constantine rose to power as ruler of the whole Empire & he issued the Edict of Milan which made Christianity legal within the Empire.

Strands of Christianity professing different beliefs continued within the Empire until the need arose to define what Christians actually believed.

In 325, Constantine called the Council of Nicaea which clarified what Christians believed and produced the Nicen Creed which we still say today.

Romans blamed Christianity for the steady decline of Roman values in the West, invasions by barbarians, and general economic decline citing both that Christianity sought to overturn the social system and exalt the lower classes and that it angered the gods and drew down their disfavor. This was confirmed for Romans in 410 when Alaric sacked the city of Rome.

Our normal picture of the sack of Rome by Alaric is of blue painted pagan barbarians with great horned helms and forked beards slobbering their way toward a massive destruction and rape of the city.  But it seems that Alaric and his men were neither pagan NOR barbarian as they were all Roman military trained; spoke Latin, wore Latin dress, employed Latin mannerisms. They were part of the auxilii (I think it was called) = the "native" troops trained to protect and police the area under Roman command. According to -

"He (Alaric) commanded the Gothic allies, fighting alongside the Romans at the Battle of River Frigidus in 394 CE, a battle waged between the eastern emperor Theodosius I and the western usurper emperor Eugenius."

So Alaric seems to have been a Romanized Arian Christian who supported Theodosius (the legit emperor) against Eugenius (the usurping emperor) and the Franks. After his service he was not recognized by the Senate in any meaningful way even though he was the only real player in the Balkans at the time.

Hilaire Belloc writes that the whole "sacking of Rome" thingummy was that they descended on the capitol to demand back pay (hadn't been paid in months) but were denied by the elitist and bureaucratic senate and told to go home. They didn't (or at least, not until they had gotten their pay in local goods stripped from the city - perhaps a few bonfires were involved, too).

 It makes for a great read:

Alaric sat patiently, waiting for Stilicho to join him. Despite his good intentions, Stilicho, however, was delayed due to problems elsewhere in the west: the Gothic king Radagaisus invaded Italy; the Vandals, Alans, and Survi invaded Gaul; and the future emperor Constantine III (a viable threat to the throne) emerged victorious from Britain. These setbacks made money scarce and negotiations impossible. Alaric's patience wore thin, and his demand for 4,000 pounds of gold (payment for his waiting) went unheard. As a result, he began to slowly move his army closer to Italy. Although Stilicho wanted to pay the demands, the Roman Senate, under the leadership of a war hawk named Olympius disagreed, and the Senate considered Alaric's actions a declaration of war.

With Olympius' urging, the emperor decided to invade the east. Stilicho warned against the emperor leading the army, choosing to lead an army himself. With Stilicho away, Honorius and Olympius traveled to Ticinum, an Italian city just south of Milan, supposedly to review the troops; however, Olympius, without the permission of the emperor, ordered the killing of thousands of Gothic allies - an action that further angered Alaric. A final fatality of this massacre was Stilicho himself, who was accused of plotting with Alaric. As a result of this treachery, over 10,000 soldiers defected and joined Alaric's army. In 408 CE the Gothic army sacked the cities of Aquilea, Concordia, Altinum, Cremona, Bononia, Ariminum, and Picenum, choosing, however, to avoid Ravenna, the capital of the western empire and home of Emperor Honorius. Instead, Alaric set his sights on Rome, surrounding all 13 gates of the city, blockading the Tiber River and forcing widespread rationing; within weeks decaying corpses littered the city streets.

As additional forces came to Alaric's side, Emperor Honorius did little to help the city and oppose Alaric. The Goths were still viewed as barbarians and no match for the armies of the empire. Although the treasury was virtually empty, the Senate finally succumbed, and wagons left the city carrying two tons of gold, 13 tons of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 fleeces, and 3,000 pounds of pepper. 

He had tried everything, even attempting to name a sympathetic senator named Attalus appointed as a new Roman emperor failed. He took Honorius's sister Galla Placidia hostage but to no avail. An alliance asking for an annual payment of gold and grain, as well as the provinces of Venetia, Noricum, and Dalmatia, was refused. Alaric had few choices left, and on August 24, 410 CE, Alaric prepared to enter the city; Rome had not been sacked since 390 BCE. When the Salarian Gate was opened by an unnamed sympathizer, an army of “barbarians” entered Rome, and a three-day pillage began. While the homes of the wealthy were plundered, buildings burned, and pagan temples destroyed, St. Peter's and St. Paul's were left untouched. Oddly, when Honorius heard that Rome was perishing, he feared the worst - not because of his love of the city, but because he believed his beloved fighting cock named Rome had been killed.

Romans blamed Christianity for the sack of the city, however, and for a great many other things.

In response to this calumnious censure Saint Augustine wrote his great work "The City of God" in which he defined two competing visions of the world:

1. the city of men - in which power, success, wealth are the markers of a good life; but this city remains involved in an eternal rotation of power in which decline and destruction are inevitable

2. the city of God - in which love, forgiveness, and flourishing are the markers of a good life; this city is eternal and will outlast all cities of men.

The next 2000 years of European history (Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment & Modern eras) will essentially be a constant struggle between these two competing visions.

As Eric Voegelin would phrase this struggle in the 20th century, “We must not allow them to immanentize the eschaton”.  Most of the major events in European history can be read through this lens of the struggle between the city of God and the city of men.  To attempt to bring about (immanentize) heaven on earth (the eschaton) terrible and horrifying events have been justified.  Perhaps it is necessary to re-evaluate whether trying to make the city of men into the city of God is even a possible thing.