Three Late-Antique Narratives (Part II)


Fresco from Pompeii (Late First century)

III. The centuries of Late Antiquity were those, as Gilbert Murray notes, of “a failure of nerve,” which is indeed the title of one of his chapters.  The original Greek Enlightenment of the Classical period, summed up in a literature that reaches from Homer to the philosophers, was supremely confident in its power of knowledge and in its understanding of the natural, the supernatural, and the human worlds.  Wars for empire sapped the will of the Classical world, however; while relentless sophistic criticism undermined trust in inherited concepts, with superstitions from the East filling the conceptual vacuum thus created.  For Murray, the “Mystery Cults” and related movements of Late Antiquity epitomize the phenomenon.  They represent for Murray a retreat from rational religion in a widespread “loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of normal human effort,” as well as in “despair of patient inquiry,” all accompanied by “an intensifying of certain spiritual emotions.”  In the second of its two aspects in Satyricon, the Priapus cult functions as a salvation cult, offering to the convert an exit from the unpleasant brothel-labyrinth or Cyclops-cave of a degraded social scene.  What of Lucius Apuleius?  In addition to his talent as a storyteller, Apuleius lectured on Plato’s philosophy and worked as a civil adjudicator in his North African hometown of Madaura.  Apuleius also held sacerdotal office in one of the most prominent of the Second Century mysteries, those associated with the cult of the syncretic goddess Isis, whom worshippers identified with Aphrodite, Demeter, Artemis, Hera, and every other motherly deity.

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Three Late-Antique Narratives (Part I)

Couture, Thomas (1815 - 1879) Romans & Their Decadence (1847)

Thomas Couture (1815 – 1879): Roman Decadence (1847)

Those who are determined to resist the moral and civic corruption of their age – those who refuse to participate in the flouting of decorum and the degradation of bodies – must also resist the sophistic apology that seeks to excuse the very same moral and civic corruption.  This apology typically articulates itself as a form of dogmatic Determinism.  The apologist denies freedom of will so as to exculpate moral lapses generally, or perhaps those of the enunciator himself specifically. Determinism seeks to redefine moral consequences as non-causal outcomes that have somehow happened to people, as it were, at random.  The astute will discern such attempts at spurious exoneration in the oft-heard counseling claim that obnoxious behaviors like dipsomania or drug addiction stem from the dumb proclivity of the organism rather than from witting declensions of a particular character; and in the sociological tenet that crime emerges as a “consequence” of “poverty” or of “oppressive social structures.”  Thus a well-known movie actor blames his philandering on his “sex-addiction,” as though his proclivity to fornicate with as many women as possible impinged on him from outside himself so that no personal agency could be discerned in his transgressions.  Thus a school board rejects a sex-education curriculum based on the concept of chastity with the argument that abstinence defies nature and is for that reason fabulously unrealistic. Forty years ago first lady Nancy Reagan withstood a torrent of public abuse for her suggestion that schools should teach children simply “to say no” to temptations.  Mrs. Reagan’s critics did not say what else people are supposed to do to avoid temptation; they were merely certain that the will is powerless and they were outraged at the idea that self-control might be entered as an item in the school curriculum.

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Wrong Turns and Bad Choices

Commenter Dale Nelson just shared a quote that deserves better than the swift oblivion of a comment thread, so I am elevating it to the slightly less swift oblivion of a post.  He tells me that the passage was written by Robert Aickman (1914-1981), an English conservationist and writer of weird tales, and that it was warmly approved by the American paleoconservative and ghost-story writer Russell Kirk. Continue reading

A House With Nobody In It

“Out of the drear and desolate place
So full of ruin’s solemn grace”

William Dean Howells, “The Empty House” (1861)

Pathos is the power by which a human heart is stirred to pity and compassion for the suffering of little people, for the decay of ordinary things.  Pathos is dangerous when it becomes an excuse for weeping sentimentality, but a man who has never been touched by pathos is not altogether a man.  Shakespeare called it the “melting mood” because pathos for a moment liquefies a frozen heart; because the south wind of pathos starts the eye dripping like an icicle in spring. Continue reading

A Bagatelle

There is no moral, theological or religious point to this item, but as Paul advised taking a little wine for the sake of the stomach, so I advise a little frivolity for the sake of the soul.  And it may be well to remind ourselves and our readers that the grumpy old professors who write for the Orthosphere once gave their old professors something to grump about.  

When I was a stripling student at the State College,* broomball was one of my less disgraceful diversion.  As shrewd readers may surmise, broomball is a game played with brooms and a ball.  Its object and rules resemble those of ice hockey, and at this State College, it was in fact played in the hockey arena. Continue reading

The Peril of Learned Lumber

“The bookish blockhead, ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head.”

Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism (1711)

If we set aside the imputation of blockheadedness, I don’t suppose any bookish person will deny the essential truth of these lines. Like the capacious attic of a packrat, a retentive and bookish head will eventually be crammed to the rafters with “loads of learned lumber”; and much of this learned lumber will be broken, moth-eaten, moldy, begrimed, or meant for uses that the owner has forgotten or never understood. Continue reading

The Odd One

I have a student, apparently male, who sometimes comes to class dressed as a female anime character. It’s a large class, and he sits at the back, but his costumes are flamboyant and include large wigs, so he catches the eye. He first caught my eye the morning after I posted my piece on “Draggieland,” and I’ll admit that I thought his appearance in the class might not be a coincidence. Continue reading

A Winter’s Reading (Selections)


Walter J. Ong, Jr., Orality and Literacy (1982):  Freshman composition students – whose deficient prose has come in for praise during their progress from Kindergarten to high school by teachers who also write poorly and have no real grasp of grammar or syntax – believe firmly that writing differs not at all from speaking.  They therefore “write” only what they would say, were they jawing with their dorm-buddies over some topical topic.  (If, that is, they did jaw, but mainly they do not.) Ong’s Orality and Literacy explores the stark contrast between oral language and written language; or rather, between the thinking of those who live in what he calls primary oral cultures and those who live fully in the stream of literate, either chirographic or typographic, culture.  Ong’s chapter on “Some Psychodynamics of Orality” lists the characteristics of a primary oral culture.  In an early paragraph Ong remarks that “fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even of the possibility of writing.”  For one thing – an oral culture is also an aural culture.  Speech is sound; it vanishes into silence in the same moment as it pronounces itself.  Speech is time-bound.  To attend to speech means to attend to persons, either orators or interlocutors; and both oratory and interlocution correspond to a performance.  Oral cultures and literate cultures in fact share a need, namely to preserve the wisdom necessary for group survival, but in an oral culture this takes the form of proverbs and sayings, which are anything but discursive and strike literates as quaint and hackneyed.  “In an oral culture,” as Ong writes, “experience is intellectualized mnemonically.”  The young come under the obligation continuously to repeat the legal and customary formulas.  Oral cultures will appear to literates as restrictive and redundant in their iteration, narrow in range, and sententious, traits that arise from an intrinsic limitation.

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