Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Swerve

At its height the Museum contained at least a half-million papyrus rolls systematically organized, labeled, and shelved according to a clever new system that its first director, a Homer scholar named Zenodotus, seems to have invented: the system was alphabetical order.


What was ridiculous about Christianity was not only its language- the crude style of the Gospels Greek resting in the barbarous otherness of Hebrew and Aramaic- but also its exaltation of divine humiliation and pain conjoined with a arrogant triumphalism. The Epicureans mockery of Christianity set the stage for the subsequent disappearance of the whole Epicurean school of thought: Plato and Aristotle, pagans who believed in the immortality of the soul, could ultimately be accommodated by a triumphant Christianity; Epicureanism could not.

Epicurus did not deny the existence of gods. Rather, he thought that if the concept of divinity made any sense at all, the gods could not possibly be concerned with anything but their own pleasures. Neither creators of the universe nor its destroyers, utterly indifferent to the doings of any beings other than themselves, they were deaf to our prayers or our rituals. The Incarnation, Epicureans scoffed, was a particularly absurd idea. Why should the humans think of themselves as so superior to bees, elephants, ants, or any of the available species, now or in eons to come, that god should take their form and not another? And why then, among all the varieties of humans, should he have taken the form of a jew? Why should anyone with any sense credit the idea of Providence, a childish idea contradicted by any rational adult’s experience and observation? Christians are like a council of frogs in a pond, croaking at the top of their lungs, “For our sakes was the world created.”

Christians could try, of course, to reverse the mockery. If such doctrines as the Incarnation and the resurrection of the body seemed absurd-“figments of diseased imagination," as one pagan put it, "and the futile fairy-tales invented by poets' fancy. What about the tales that pagans profess to believe?
But there is, of course, something uncomfortable about the “back-to-you” strategy, since the alleged ridiculousness of one set of beliefs hardly shores up the validity of another.

Christians knew, moreover, that many pagans did not believe in the literal truth of their own myths and that there were some-Epicureans prominent among them-who called into question virtually all religious systems and promises. Such enemies of faith found the doctrine of bodily resurrection particularly risible, since it was contradicted both by their scientific theory of atoms and by the evidence of their own senses: the rotting corpses that testified with nauseating eloquence to the dissolution of the flesh.

The early Church Father Tertullian vehemently insisted that, despite all appearances, everything would come back in the afterlife, down to the last details of the mortal body. He knew all too well the responses he would get from the doubters:

What will be the use of the hands themselves and the feet and all the working parts of the body, when even trouble about food will cease? What will be the use of the kidneys . . . and of the other genital organs of both sexes and the dwelling places of the foetus and the streams from the nurse’s breasts, when sexual intercourse and conception and upbringing alike will cease to be? Finally, what use will the whole body be, which will of course have absolutely nothing to do?

"The crowd mocks,” Tertullian wrote, “ judging that nothing is left over after death,” but they will not have the last laugh: "I will rather laugh at the crowd at the time when they are cruelly burning up themselves.” On the Day of Judgment, each man will be brought forth before the heavenly tribunal, not a piece of him, not a shadow, not a symbolic token, but rather the whole of him, as he lived on the earth. And that means teeth and intestines and genitals, whether or not their mortal functions have ceased forever. “Yes!” Tertullian addressed his pagan listeners. “We too in our day laughed at this. We are from among yourselves. Christians are made, not born!”

Some critics pointed out with a derisory smile that many features of the Christian vision were stolen from much more ancient pagan stories: a tribunal in which souls are judged, fire used for punishment in an underground prison house, a divinely beautiful paradise reserved for the spirits of the holy. But Christians replied that these ancient beliefs were all distorted reflections of the true Christian mysteries. The eventual success of this argumentative strategy is suggested by the very word we have been using for those who clung to the old polytheistic faith. Believers in Jupiter, Minerva, and Mars did not think of themselves as “pagans”: the word, which appeared in the late fourth century, is etymologically related to the word “peasant.” It is an insult, then, a sign that the laughter at rustic ignorance had decisively reversed direction.

The charge of doctrinal plagiarism was easier for Christians to deal with than the charge of absurdity. Pythagoreans who believed in bodily resurrection had the right general idea; it was simply an idea that needed correction. But Epicureans who said that the whole idea of resurrection was a grotesque violation of everything that we know about the physical universe could not be so easily corrected. It made some sense to argue with the former, but the latter were best simply silenced.

Though early Christians, Tertullian among them, found certain features in Epicureanism admirable-the celebration of friendship, the emphasis on charity and forgiveness, a suspicion of worldly ambition-by the early fourth century, the task had become clear: the atomists had to disappear. The followers of Epicurus had already aroused considerable enmity outside the Christian community. When the emperor known as Julian the Apostate (c. 331-363), who attempted to revive paganism against the mounting Christian onslaught, drew up a list of works that it was important for pagan priests to read, he also noted some titles that he explicitly Wished to exclude: “Let us not,” he wrote, “admit discourses by Epicureans.” jews, likewise, termed anyone who departed from the rabbinic tradition apikoros, an Epicurean. But Christians particularly found Epicureanism a noxious threat. If you grant Epicurus his claim that the soul is mortal, wrote Tertullian, the whole fabric of Christian morality unravels. For Epicurus, human suffering is always finite: “ if it is slight, he [Epicurus] says, you may despise it, if it is great it will not be long.” But to be Christian, Tertullian countered, is to believe that torture and pain last forever: “Epicurus utterly destroys religion,” wrote another Church Father; take Providence away, and “confusion and disorder will overtake life.”

Christian polemicists had to find a way to turn the current of mockery against Epicurus and his followers. Ridiculing the pagan pantheon did not work in this case, since Epicureanism eloquently dismantled the whole sacrificial worship of the gods and dismissed the ancient stories. What had to be done was to refashion the account of the founder Epicurus so that he became a figure of riotous excess.

Even more than the theory that the world consisted only of atoms and void, the main problem was the core ethical idea: that the highest good is the pursuit of pleasure and the diminution of pain. What had to be undertaken was the difficult project of making what appeared simply sane and natural-the ordinary impulses of all sentient creatures-seem like the enemy of the truth.

Centuries were required to accomplish this grand design, and it was never fully completed. But the grand outlines may be seen in the late third and early fourth century in the works of a North African convert from paganism to Christianity: Lactantius. Appointed tutor to the son of the emperor Constantine, who had established Christianity as the religion of the empire, Lactantius wrote a series of polemics against Epicureanism. That philosophy had, he acknowledges, a substantial following, "not because it brings forward any truth, but because the attractive name of pleasure invites many.” Christians must refuse the invitation and understand that pleasure is a code name for vice.

The task, for Lactantius, was not only to draw believers away from their pursuit of human pleasures; it was also to persuade them that God was not, as Epicureans believed, entirely absorbed within the orbit of divine pleasures and hence indifferent to the fate of humans. Instead, as Lactantius wrote in a
celebrated work written in 313 CE, God cared about humans, just as a father cared about his wayward child. And the sign of that care, he wrote, was anger. God was enraged at man that was the characteristic manifestation of His love and wanted to smite him over and over again, with spectacular, unrelenting violence.

A hatred of pleasure-seeking and a vision of God’s providential rage: these were death knells of Epicureanism, henceforward branded by the faithful as “insane.” Lucretius had urged the person who felt the prompting of sexual desire to satisfy it: “a dash of gentle pleasure sooths the sting.” (4.177) Christianity, as a story rehearsed by Gregory demonstrates, pointed in a different direction. The pious Benedict found himself thinking of a woman he had once seen, and, before he knew what was happening, his desires were aroused:

He then noticed a thick patch of nettles and briers next to him. Throwing his garment aside he flung himself into the sharp thorns and stinging nettles. There he rolled and tossed until his whole body was in pain and covered with blood. Yet, once he had conquered pleasure through suffering, his torn and bleeding skin served to drain the poison of temptation from his body. Before long, the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart. It was by exchanging these two fires that he gained the victory over sin.

What worked for the saint in the early sixth century would, as monastic rules made clear, work for others. In one of the great Cultural transformations in the history of the West, the pursuit of pain triumphed over the pursuit of pleasure.

The infliction of pain was hardly unknown in the world Of Lucretius. The Romans were specialists in it, dedicating sums and huge arenas to public spectacles or violence. And it was not only in the Colosseum that Romans could glut themselves on injury. pain, and death. Plays and poems, based on the ancient myths, were often blood-drenched, as were paintings and sculptures. Violence was part of the fabric of everyday life. Schoolmasters and slaveholders were expected to flog their victims, and whipping was a frequent prelude to Roman executions. This is why in the gospel account, prior to his crucifixion, Jesus was tied to a column and scourged.

But for the pagans, in the great majority of these instances, pain was understood not as a positive value, a stepping stone to salvation, as it was by pious Christians intent on whipping themselves, but as an evil, something visited upon rule~ breakers, criminals, captives, unfortunate wretches, and-the only category with dignity-soldiers. Romans honored a brave soldier’s voluntary acceptance of pain, but that acceptance was far different from the ecstatic embrace celebrated in hundreds of convents and monasteries. The heroes of Roman stories willingly met what they could not, in good conscience, avoid or what they felt they had to endure in order to prove to their enemies their dauntless courage. Outside the orbit of that heroic obligation, there lay the special philosophical discipline that enabled the classical sage to regard inescapable pain-of kidney stones, for example-with equanimity. And for everyone, from the most exalted philosopher to the humblest artisan, there was the natural pursuit of pleasure.

In pagan Rome, the most extravagant version of this pursuit of pleasure came together in the gladiatorial arena with the most extravagant infliction and endurance of pain. If Lucretius offered a moralized and purified version of the Roman pleasure principle, Christianity offered a moralized and purified version of the Roman pain principle. Early Christians, brooding on the sufferings of the Saviour, the sinfulness of mankind, and the anger of a just Father, found the attempt to cultivate pleasure manifestly absurd and dangerous. At best a trivial distraction, pleasure was at worst a demonic trap, figured in medieval art by those alluring women beneath whose gowns one can glimpse reptilian claws. The only life truly worth imitating-the life of Jesus-bore ample witness to the inescapable presence in mortal existence of sadness and pain, but not of pleasure. The earliest pictorial depictions of jesus were uniform in their melancholy sobriety. As every pious reader of Luke’s Gospel knew, Jesus wept, but there were no verses that described him laughing or smiling, let alone pursuing pleasure.

It was not difficult for Christians of the fifth and sixth centuries to find reasons to weep: the cities were falling apart, the fields were soaked in the blood of dying soldiers, robbery and rape were rampant. There had to be some explanation for the catastrophic behavior of human beings over so many generations, as if they were incapable of learning anything from their historical experience. Theology provided an answer deeper and more fundamental than this or that flawed individual or institution: humans were by nature corrupt. Inheritors of the sin of Adam and Eve, they richly deserved every miserable catastrophe that befell them; they needed to be punished; they had coming to them an endless diet of pain. Indeed, it was only through this pain that a small number could find the narrow gate to salvation.

The most ardent early believers in this doctrine, those fired by an explosive mix of fear, hope, and fierce enthusiasm, were determined to make the pain to which all humankind was condemned their active choice. In doing so, they hoped to pay to an angry God the dues of suffering that He justly and implacably demanded. They possessed something of the martial hardness admired by traditional Roman culture, but, with a few exceptions, the goal was not the achievement of Stoical indifference to pain. On the contrary. Their whole project depended on experiencing an intense sensitivity to hunger, thirst, and loneliness. And when they whipped themselves with thorny branches or struck themselves with jagged stones, they made no effort to suppress their cries of anguish. Those cries were part of the payment, the atonement that would, if they were successful, enable them to recover in the afterlife the happiness that Adam and Eve had lost.

By the year 600 there were over three hundred monasteries and convents in Italy and Gaul. Many of these were still small- little more than fortified villas, with their outbuildings-but they possessed a spiritual rationale and an institutional coherence that conferred upon them stability in an unstable world. Their inhabitants were drawn from those who felt compelled to transform their lives, to atone for their own sins and for the sins of others, to secure eternal bliss by turning their backs on ordinary pleasures. Over time, their numbers were supplemented by many less fervent souls who had in effect been given to the Church by their parents or guardians.

In monasteries and convents driven by the belief that redemption would only come through abasement, it is not surprising that forms of corporal punishment-virgarum verbera (hitting with rods), corporale supplicium (bodily punishment), ictus (blows), vapulatio (cudgeling), disciplina (whipping), and flagellatio-were routinely inflicted on community members who broke the rules. Disciplinary practices that would, in pagan society, have been disgraces inflicted only on social inferiors were meted out with something like democratic indifference to rank. Typically, the guilty party had to carry the rod that was used for the beating, and then sitting on the ground
and constantly repeating the words Mea culpa, submit to blows until the abbot or abbess was satisfied.

The insistence that punishment be actively embraced by the victims-literalized in the kissing of the rod--marked a deliberate Christian trampling on the Epicurean credo of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. After all, the experience of pain was not only punishment; it was a form of pious emulation. Christian hermits, brooding on the sufferings of the Saviour, mortified their flesh, in order to experience in their own bodies the torments that jesus had had to undergo. Though these acts of self-scourging began to be reported in late antiquity-they were novel and strange enough in the beginning to attract widespread attention-it was not until the eleventh century that a monastic reformer, the Italian Benedictine Peter Damian, established voluntary self-flagellation as a central ascetic practice acceptable to the Church.

It had taken a thousand years to win the struggle and secure the triumph of pain seeking. “Did our Redeemer not endure scourging?” Damian asked those critics who called into question the celebration of the whip. Weren’t the apostles and many of the saints and martyrs flogged? What better way to follow in their footsteps, what surer method of imitating Christ, than to suffer the blows that they suffered? To be sure, Damian concedes, in the case of these glorious predecessors, someone else Was doing the whipping. But in a world in which Christianity has triumphed, we have to do the whipping for ourselves. Otherwise the whole dream and doctrine of the imitation of Christ would have to be abandoned. “The body has to be shaped like a piece of wood,” explained one of the many texts that followed in Damian’s wake, “with beatings and whippings, with canes, scourges, and discipline. The body has to be tortured and starved, so that it submits to the spirit and takes perfect shape." In the pursuit of this spiritual goal, all boundaries, restraints, and inhibitions drop away.

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