Saturday, March 24, 2018

Love Sex Tragedy

When Roman citizens became Christian, they did not forget their education, shut their eyes or lose all their bearings. The Christians who took over the administration of the Roman Empire or the Roman administrators who became Christian happily dressed in the same uniform as their predecessors, and followed much the same course of political infighting, secular ambition and pursuit of earthly pleasures as earlier generations of powerful Roman bureaucrats. They sat at desks and did not stand on pillars. Not everyone can share in a constant assault on the comfort zone of self-satisfaction. It is this tradition of Christianity that most modern religion finds easier to deal with. Christian accommodation to the Roman Empire functioned at all levels of cultural activity. Ancient cities were decorated With glorious statues, which caused Christians to react with consternation. According to the Hebrew Bible, ‘you shall not make any graven image’, and in general Jewish tradition has followed that law to the letter. In the synagogue of Dura Europos, excavated in 1932 in Syria, floors have been found with mosaics, including signs of the zodiac and other images. But this seems to be a rarity. It is also the case that when the Israelites were instructed to build the Ark of the Covenant, it was to have on it ‘Cherubim with their wings folded over the cover’; but this is the description of a work which ancient Israelites couldn’t see, any more than we can (and ancient Jewish commentators also found this a very vexing passage). Early Christians found the artwork of Greece and Rome deeply troubling. The early theologians were vitriolic in their attempt to keep Christians from looking at such things. As far as Clement of Alexandria was concerned, having a picture of Aphrodite on the wall was as sinful as committing a terrible sexual crime: ‘We declare that the sight of such things is to be forbidden . . . Your eyes have whored; your sight has committed adultery.’ At various points in Christianity’s later history, strong puritan movements have demanded the destruction of all deceptive and corrupting images from churches. Following the Bible strictly, art should be banned. 

However, as early as the fourth century at least, although they used the same Bible, Christians were beginning to produce art themselves and to borrow images from the so-called pagan world and reuse them. Angels, for example, take their form tall, chastely robed figures with wings not just because of that one passage in Exodus where the wings of Cherubim are mentioned. Equally influential are the figures of Nike, ‘Vlctory’ -tall, chastely robed figures with wings which Were so common on the monuments of the Greek cities. As is evident from Figure 27, when Christians came to paint the Annunciation, for example, they had ready models to hand. The putti of Roman art -Cupid, the boy god of desire also easily folded into Christian representation. This process of absorption was certainly not without argument and even violence little of early Christianity was. In 382, When the Roman Empire was officially Christian, there was a major debate about what should be done with the Altar of Victory that stood in the Senate House in Rome. The emperor, Gratian, ordered it to be removed, but traditionally minded senators were outraged, and organized a protest, sending a delegation to him in Milan with his pontifical robes the traditional costume of the head pagan priest, which was the emperor’s role. It took more than Constantine’s conversion to change the Roman sense of tradition. But in the fourth and fifth centuries, there was a surprising complicity between pagan and Christian art. 

The connection between Cynics and Christians was explicitly made by Greek writers. Lucian, the second-century satirist, was put on the Index of banned books by the Catholic Church because of his brief dismissive comments about Christians. His sneer was that they had been duped into thinking a second-rate Cynic, a charlatan called Peregrinus, was their ‘prophet, cultleader, church warden’ a ‘new Socrates’. For Lucian, Christians appeared as yet another weird, philosophically influenced cult. 

The figure of Jesus himself, however foundational and unique for Christians, was also assimilated to the stereotypes of Greek and Roman society. There were many holy men and sages who made their living in the eastern Mediterranean. Apollonius, who came from Tyana in Asia Minor, was one of the most successful. His life-story was written by the Greek intellectual Philostratus at the request, he tells us, of Julia Domna, the wife of the Roman emperor, because she was fascinated by the sage. Apollonius was a man of supernatural powers. He performed miracles, including curing people. His wisdom was profound, and often expressed in profound sayings. Accompanied by a disciple, Apollonius travelled to India and Persia, where he met the fabled wise men of the 
East, the Gymnosophists and the Brahmans, with whom be swapped wisdom and learnt the gift of foretelling from them, People came to honour Apollonius as a more than mortal figure, Shrines grew up and statues of him still survive. 

These holy men gave a narrative context in which to understand the holy men of Christianity. The often strange folklorish stories which circulated around such magicians and prophets fed readily into the stories of the saints, as they were constructed with such gusto and miraculous magic into holy texts like the Acts of Paul and Thecla. Greek novels too often include a young female heroine, like Thecla, who is threatened in her sexual purity by pirates, or lecherous landowners, or officials. These girls fight for their Virginity. One of them, faced by a would-be rapist, screams: ‘Set out your tortures, bring in the wheel! Behold my hands let them be stretched! Bring in your whips too: behold my back let it be beaten! Let fire be brought: behold my body let it be burnt! Bring the sword too: behold my neck. . .’ and so on. These words might be spoken by a Christian martyr, but they are spoken by a hgure in a funny and sexy novel, who has already been all too happy to climb into bed with her lover (when her Virginity was preserved only by her mother’s interruption rather than by a passion for purity). Christians and non-Christians could read the novel and the female-martyr tales in the light of each other. Narrative techniques slid from classical culture into Christian writing. 

But the single most important area where Christianity absorbed classical culture, and had its most difficult and perhaps productive encounter, is with Greek philosophy. Philosophy, which started with Plato in the fourth century BC, had become a fully institutionalized profession by the second century BC. 
Educated Christians could not bypass Greek philosophy. Christianity demanded an obsession with the inner life, and philosophy for generations of Greeks and Romans had provided the authoritative guide to spirituality and self-reflection. 

Philosophy was a psychological as much as an intellectual resource for the citizen of antiquity. Ancient philosophers, hawking for business, took their cue from Socrates on his deathbed: philosophy, they say, offers a preparation for a fearless death. It was necessary to recognize how irrational it was to fear death. And a crucial step in this process was evaluating what life was really worth. One of the standard images of the philosopher is the man who can dismiss the cares of the world as trivial and superficial. Cynics, laughing and scorning, mocked those who cared about money, status, fine possessions, positions of power. The Stoics taught how to be stoical not to be moved by such temporary and unimportant pleasures. A good Stoic would rather die than accept a corrupt life and would die happily. So Seneca, the philosopher and tutor of Nero, sat in his bath and opened his veins to bleed to death. The historian Tacitus describes how, as bound up his veins, got out of his bath, wrote the letter, then calmly got back in the bath, undid the bandages, and bled to death. 
 Philosophy gave you the techniques by which you could control the anger, lust and avarice that twist and distort your soul. It gave you the arguments and the inner strength to reach emotional calm. Epicurean philosophy made this state of calm ataraxia its highest goal. Stoics learnt to rise above all the blows of life. Cynics laughed to scorn the seductions of materialism. Each of these schools of philosophy encouraged the ‘care of the self’ introspection, reflection, a search for self-control and the practice of self-possession. True happiness comes not from the fulfilled needs of pleasure but from lack of want. Philosophy offers the inner resources to deal with the complexities and disappointments of a brutal and confusing world. 
Early Christianity was also deeply suspicious of philosophy. It offered an intense inner life but without the worship and the strictures of a Christian God.

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