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.

I. Vice belongs to the human condition. Most people manage to overcome the worst of their viciousness. It therefore requires a mighty labor not to see the so-called explanations of vice as mere excuses – indeed, as lame excuses – for irredentism and indulgence.  The claim of personal helplessness is the creed of people who like their vices and who will on no account reform themselves.  These non-explanations nevertheless have wide currency, but so also do the indifferent notion that the self is a “logocentric” illusion and the relativistic opinion that to flout a stricture is morally equal to observing it.  The political religions of the Twentieth Century all relied on – and indeed mandated – these views as part of the “correct” view of existence.  Socialism generically predicates its own inevitability and it then necessarily also predicates the emptiness of individual determination or action.  Radical restructuring of society comes upon a nation inevitably, the vanguard always argues; and restructuring is justified because there are whole classes of victims whose misery is supposedly not of their own making, but has impinged on them from an outside and beyond the control of the afflicted.  In its less acute form of the multicultural welfare state, socialism insists that victim-groups not only cannot help themselves but that they cannot actually be reformed and that it is the duty of everyone else, first, to refrain from any condemnation of counterproductive behaviors and, then, to subsidize the pathological consequences of those behaviors.

Determinism or Fatalism is, however, hardly a modern innovation.  The idea appears to ripen with a certain stage of civilization and to go in tandem with a lapse in family integrity and a general abeyance of customs and forms.  Whatever we call it, the same sophistic teaching also shows itself to be in a relation with the scale of the civic environment, belonging not to the eras of the city-state or of the feudal market town but rather to the ages of empire, cosmopolitanism, and the universal bureaucratization of life.  As we moderns invoke biological and sociological mechanisms to absolve people of their infractions, either of omission or commission, so the ancients invoked Heimarmene or Fortuna or Sors, implacable, superhuman agencies that play with human beings, as gamblers play with dice.  Fate, sometimes also Chance, explains wealth or poverty, success or failure, as an accident, which might have fallen out otherwise; it simultaneously dulls pity for the afflicted and suggests that industriousness never really deserves the fruits of its labor.  What real virtue, then, attaches to the putatively virtuous?  Why imitate frugality, chastity, or prudence?  Fatalism would persuade the subject that to moralize about behaviors or conditions is to protest uselessly against forces beyond his conscious control.

Cole, Thomas (1801 - 1848) Course of Empire - Desolation (1836)

Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) The Course of Empire – Desolation (1836)

Like all hypocrisy, Fatalism pays stealthy tribute to that which it aims to avoid or denounce or suspend.  It utters a perpetual cry of “I can’t help myself,” thereby confessing to secret cognizance of its own self-forfeiting wretchedness.  In acknowledging and denying morality, the doctrine of individual will-less-ness blurs moral clarity.  It likewise disorients those in its gray aura who would seek the independent way and who would best be served in their quest for moral self-control by a pellucid, rather than by an occluded, description of good and evil.  The doctrine of individual will-less-ness abets libido by dissimulating rhetorically the actual presence of any effective, morally responsible volition.  As Gilbert Murray narrates in The Five Stages of Greek Religion (1925), the idea of implacable Fate as the supreme cosmic power arose as belief in the old Olympian deities shrank away and as rival imperial powers fought for dominance in the world of Mediterranean Antiquity.

Referring to Alexander’s conquests, the wars between his successors, and the civil wars that led to the establishment of the Roman Empire, Murray writes:  “In a country suffering from earthquakes or pestilences, in a court governed by the whim of a despot, in a district which is habitually the seat of war between alien armies, the ordinary virtues of diligence, honesty, and kindliness seem to be of little avail.  The only way to escape destruction is to win the favor of the prevailing powers, take the side of the strongest invader, flatter the despot, placate the Fate or Fortune or angry god that is sending the earthquake or pestilence.”  Murray quotes Juvenal on the ubiquity of destiny-worship: “Throughout the whole world, at every place and hour, by every voice Fortune alone is invoked and her name spoken… we are so much at the mercy of chance that Chance is our god.”  Murray writes, “So much for the result in superstitious minds of the denial, or rather the removal, of the Olympian gods,” which “landed men in the worship of Fortune or Fate.”  Finally, there is a dangerous “denial of the value of human endeavor” that has the “quality of poison when believed.”

In this light consider three stories from the period Late Antiquity.  Petronius Arbiter composed Satyricon around 60 AD while acting as Emperor Nero’s master of ceremonies.  Lucius Apuleius, a Platonist, wrote The Golden Ass around 160, during the long reign of Marcus Aurelius.  Augustine of Hippo, latterly St. Augustine, wrote his autobiographical Confessions in the last decade of the Fourth Century.  One will discover, among other things, that the explicitly Christian civilization, against which modernity characteristically defines itself, emerged in part as a response to ancient Fatalism, and that every one of the self-made moral snares that trap modern people – from Mammon-worship and ego-inflation to satyriasis and nymphomania – has its counterpart in the teeming, avaricious, flesh-obsessed Mediterranean world of the Imperial centuries.  Those remote centuries begin to look a good deal like the contemporary, much morally distorted, scene, with its bodily obsessions, perverse sexuality, and pervasive licentiousness.

Medovic,Celestin (1857 - 1920) Bacchanal (1893)

Celestin Medovic (1857 – 1920): Bacchanale  (1893)

II. The first of the extant episodes of Satyricon is called “Puteoli” after the Greek-speaking city on the Bay of Naples in which the author sets the action. In it the novel’s protagonist, Encolpius, is trying to find his way home. The name Encolpius, like much else in Satyricon, is a scurrilous joke, referring to its bearer’s sexual endowment.  As for the nostos or homecoming theme, it structures many an ancient tale, Homer having established its pedigree as a plot-device par excellence in his Odyssey.  Yet Odysseus actually has a home – and a wife and a son – to which he can struggle to return.  Odysseus’ struggle, moreover, is as much moral as it is physical.  At the beginning of Book I, Homer says of his hero that he alone among those who went from Ithaca to Troy could control his urges and therefore he alone found his way although delayed back home.  Nestor and Menelaus, who also figure in Homer’s tale, likewise have homes, Sparta and Pylos respectively, to which, in due course, they return.  Petronius draws on the Homeric nostos-motif while sharply distinguishing his own main character from Homer’s eponymous and entirely admirable hero.  The distinction lies in the conception of self-determination.  Odysseus has it whereas Encolpius does not.

A drifter, a con man, and a fornicator – a cynic indeed of the purest water – Encolpius connives with his companions from town to town, always eyeing the local scene, always cleverly commenting, always artfully dodging, and much worse.  After delivering a diatribe to his fellow swindler Agamemnon, which keenly sums up the decline (as Petronius sees it) of rhetoric and of education, Encolpius would like to find his lodgings.  Unfortunately all the tenements in the low-rent district where Encolpius keeps rooms look the same to him, and his circumstance forces him to ask a stranger, an old woman, whether she recognizes him and can point his way home.  Offering personally to lead him there, she says at last, “This is where you must be staying.”  Encolpius, who serves Petronius as first-person narrator, says: “I was just telling her I did not recognize the place, when I caught sight of some naked old prostitutes and some customers prowling up and down in the middle of them.  Slowly, in fact too late, I realized I had been taken to a brothel.”  Encolpius runs into his roommate, Ascyltus, who explains that he also, as he says, “couldn’t find where I’d left our lodgings,” whereupon “a respectable-looking gentleman offered to show me the way”; this guide, leading him through “various pitch-dark turnings,” until he “brought me to this place.”  Petronius has his characters make endless weary references to the famous Labyrinth of Minos and to the Cyclops-Cave, these things being outstanding metaphors of their self-defining and therefore also self-limiting cul-de-sac existence.  Encolpius, losing his way in the rambling mansion of the billionaire-freedman Trimalchio, calls it in irritation “this modern labyrinth.”  When Encolpius embarks on a ship in flight from his creditors only to discover that he has chosen his creditors’ ship, his companion in crime Eumolpus invokes Polyphemus’ dreadful lair, as the poetic figure most representative their dire straits.  But Eumolpus forgets that Odysseus did not enter that cave by accident, but rather by imprudence and in a mood of unmonitored curiosity, for which he dearly paid.

While inconvenient to the two ne’er-do-wells, their inadvertent rendezvous in the Puteoli whorehouse testifies comically to their debased condition.  While clear-sighted regarding others and quick to see a fault in a rival or a comrade, neither Encolpius nor Ascyltus, both inveterately plaintive, sees himself transparently.  Like others in Satyricon, Encolpius ascribes his unhappiness, not to its origin in his own lasciviousness or envy, but rather to a malign power extrinsic to his will which compels him into unwonted misadventure.  “Fate,” Encolpius says in the episode of the hastily planned sea-voyage, “has utterly defeated me at last,” a remark that might have been quoted with profit by Murray in conjunction with the passage from Juvenal.  When one of Encolpius’ schemes prospers, he classifies the event as “a marvelous stroke of luck,” saying “anyone would have envied [him his] luck.”  When life goes badly, he curses an opposite “cruel luck.”  A sorceress consoles Encolpius with the astrological thought that “he was born under an evil star.”  By the benevolent whimsy of the stars, it is, that the astrology-obsessed Trimalchio explains his extraordinary ascent from slavery to riches; but, according to one of his dinner-guests, “they say he stole a hobgoblin’s cap and found its treasure.”

Feast of Trimalchio from Fellini's Satyricon

From Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969); The Feast of Trimalchio

“It is worth remembering,” writes Murray, “that the best seed-ground for superstition is a society in which the fortunes of men seem to bear practically no relation to their merits and efforts.”  Both explanations of Trimalchio’s success in life superstitiously misrepresent the causes of his affluence, namely his talent for bookkeeping and his sense for business.  One might speculate in the case of the guest who proposes the hobgoblin theory, that the host’s success has provokes the guest’s envy, which then requires the deflation of the offending object.  One might speculate that in the case of the host, a type of socially elevating magical status adheres to the public perception of being blessed by Fortune.  So why bother to deny it?  It is mendacious either way because fatalist rhetoric dissimulates moral causality.  Again, telling of the “loneliness and humiliation” that caught up with him in his escapades, Encolpius utters these words: “Why couldn’t that earthquake have swallowed me up?  Or the sea, such a menace even to innocent people?  Did I escape the law, did I outwit the arena, and did I kill my host, only to end up, despite my claims to being a daring criminal, just lying here, a beggar and an exile, abandoned in a lodging-house in a Greek town?”  This too is a form of mendacity.  So is the associated formula: “One should not rely a great deal on one’s plans as fate has a way of her own.”

By contrast, in cases other than his own, Encolpius generally penetrates to the ethical antecedent of the reigning existential misery.  In the critique of bad rhetoric and corrupt education mentioned earlier, Encolpius observes that pandering to students will create cohorts of self-satisfied ignoramuses who will degrade the professions that they later enter.  “Once the rules go,” Encolpius says, “eloquence loses vigor and voice,” an observation convergent with the one made by Longinus in his treatise On the Sublime, written within a hundred years of Satyricon and likewise addressed to the defaults of life on an imperial scale.  Rhetoric lying at the heart of ancient education, its degradation bodes ill for social conditions generally.  Encolpius can also occasionally glimpse the origin of his own unhappiness.  Hearing a story about Ascyltus, with whom he has fallen out, he remarks on his own alternating “amusement at [his] rival’s misfortune” and “annoyance at his success.”  Resentment pervades the nocturnal mise-en-scène in Satyricon, the gray of night being a moral symbol as well as a diurnal phase.  Lechery, avarice, and all forms of appetite indulged by those who see in the rule of moderation an intolerable scandal – these also nebulously pervade the mise-en-scène of the novel.  For Petronius, appetite and resentment are metaphorically the same things as the mythical labyrinth.  The well-constructed maze befuddles those who would desperately like to find their way out but only after they enter the trap in a mood of blissful voluntarism.

Insofar as the characters of Satyricon find themselves thwarted in their progress by a bewildering path, they have stupidly built that baffling maze for themselves.  We see this diagnosis in one of the major unifying strands of the itinerant story, when Encolpius falls under the supposed wrath of the god Priapus after profaning the sacred rites by spying on them.  The Homeric parallel is the Wrath of Poseidon against Odysseus, but Odysseus, in contrast to Encolpius, never peeps through a keyhole.  The Priapus cult belongs to the pornographic milieu of Petronius’ novel, because it takes the form, preliminarily, of a sex-cult purely and simply.  Originally, however, Priapus functioned in the role of a god of measure and of limitation.  Petronius knows this; he exploits the deity for an ingenious double meaning.   Thus Circe, a priestess of the Priapic rites, tries to help Encolpius shed the god’s curse, which takes the form of a nagging but condign fiasco.  An element in Encolpius’ willful debauchery has been his obsessive liaison with the adolescent male prostitute Giton; indeed, squabbles over Giton have serially alienated Encolpius from the (equally debauched, equally polymorphous) Ascyltus and Eumolpus.  In the precinct of Priapus in Croton, in an atmosphere that differs in its spiritual quality from that of all the novel’s foregoing episodes, Circe tells Encolpius, who has adopted the ritual name of Polyaenas: “If you wish to get better, send Giton away.  You will get your strength back, I can tell you.”

Petronius, an Epicurean and a materialist, believes that while the gods exist they nevertheless forbear to intervene in human affairs.  Epicureans are virtual non-believers in the gods, as one might say.  Petronius does, however, believe in measure, one of the central tenets of Epicureanism.  The “Croton” episode of the tale strongly suggests, especially in its ritualistic ambiance, that the Fatalism, by which Encolpius has in effect excused and justified the behaviors that have led to his existential impasse, cannot withstand critical scrutiny.  Fatalism foolishly justifies the moral flaccidity exemplified in the humiliating lack of a physical response that dogs the story’s narrator; it supplies the pretence that consequences have no cause.  Circe’s words – and she appears to hold out to Encolpius the prospect of a marriage of some type – imply that where libido has gotten the miscreant into his troubles, a regimen of stricter behavior conscientiously adopted will salvage him from them.


5 thoughts on “Three Late-Antique Narratives (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Three Late-Antique Narratives (Part I) | Reaction Times

  2. Does fatalism cause moral degeneracy, or does moral degeneracy cause fatalism? I realize causality isn’t this simple in the real world, but am inclined to think that adoption of “born this way” fatalism follows adoption of behaviors one would prefer not to have chosen. I’m also inclined to think that this is only one of several doors into fatalism. As you say, living in vast, impersonal, and seemingly arbitrary social systems is conducive to fatalism. Also personal ineffectiveness. I have (fatalistically) watched myself become far more fatalistic in recent years, and this largely resulted from a perception of arbitrary social systems and personal ineffectiveness.

    I suppose there are many types of fatalist, but the commenter is the one I know best (because that is my type). This type stops trying to change things (including himself), frequently mutters “it is what it is,” but retains the power to pass judgment on the passing scene.

    • Fatalism is certainly easier than moral discipline. It therefore gives wider latitude to moral indiscipline. Perhaps we should formulate things in this way: Both fatalism and moral degeneracy are elements of a single phenomenon, capable of shifting their roles as cause or consequence. And, quite as you suggest, this single phenomenon occurs typically in the inhuman megalopolitan environment — hence Petronius’s labyrinthine allusions. Late in our lives (I am sixty-five) we might with a degree or two of legitimacy say to ourselves, “Well, this project, at any rate, is as complete as it ever will be,” and remain unsatisfied with ourselves as we slouch toward the consummation of our common mortality. I have no intention, for example, of giving up red wine or brandy.

      • Fatalism seems to come with its own warrant, since one cannot feel that one has chosen to believe that one has no choice. As you say, the Labyrinth is a potent symbol and it stands in stark contrast to the Quest. One can fail to reach the goal of a Quest, by perhaps falling to the snare of a Garden of Armida or failing to emerge from a Chapel Perilous, but there is a goal and success is possible. In a labyrinth, one turn is as good as the next, since every turn takes one at last to the Minotaur.

        As you say in the post, despair is the emotional face of fatalism. I think despair is the reason that Leviathan always fails, why the Tower of Babel always falls. When humans are organized into a vast empire or a virtual army, they become fatalists and fall into despair. Once these mega-machines succeed in reducing everyone to a “cog in the machine,” they grind to a stop because they need the fuel of human spirit.

  3. This piece did a good job of jarring me to the realization of the extent to which fatalism has tainted my thoughts and perceptions; either unnoticed or recognized and mislabelled as mature resignation. Especially pernicious is the “everything will work out in the end” line I’ve told myself over and over again. It seems like this optimistic flavor of fatalism has really done more to instill a comfortable apathy than to spur me to action and fix the things in my life that need fixing. Heck, if things worked out at all they would have “worked out in the end”.
    I’m still reeling at the fact that I never identified such fatalistic thoughts as a vehicle for complacency.

    Thanks for making me think, I’ll be waiting for the next part.


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