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.

The Golden Ass: Or the Metamorphoses is an allegory of salvation by means of spiritual trial under the redeeming mercy of the Great Goddess.  Apuleius’ novel rollicks along comically and shares many satirical traits with its Petronian precursor-text.  In The Golden Ass, Apuleius depicts a world poisoned by its vices and redoubled in its morbidity by a pervasive exculpatory invocation of Fate, an agency that the rabble and the upper class alike commonly nominate as the supreme principle of a grab-as-can existence.  Under the doctrine of Fate, desire propels the subject like an irresistible destiny, and no one – or hardly anyone – so much as tries to fight against immediately satisfying his basest urges in any way that he can.  People throng the arenas to see the spectacle of gladiatorial combat; they crowd the brothels to liaise with prostitutes.  People cheat, betray, and murder one another; and they insouciantly debase the traditional forms (morals, customs) that betoken an older, healthier, non-disgruntled world, in which responsibility and obligation trumped mere appetite.  As in Satyricon, so, too, in The Golden Ass there are many telling references to The Odyssey.

Coomans, Joseph (1816 - 1889) Last Hour of Pompeii (1869)

Joseph Coomans (1816 – 1889): Last Hour of Pompeii (1869)

The protagonist of The Golden Ass, a younger version of his author who bears his author’s given name of Lucius, might be any twenty-something male recently graduated from a North American state university.  Any college teacher, will have met many Lucii every semester and perhaps once was one, himself.  Exercising the privileges that go with affluence, Lucius, who stems from a wealthy family, has journeyed from Corinth, his home, to remote Hypata in Thessaly in search of a particular type of amusement.  The Thessaly of The Golden Ass is a region of Greece renowned for witchcraft, theriomorphism, and other mantic shenanigans, in which Lucius takes a powerful but unhealthy interest.  Sorcery has a peculiar role in The Golden Ass.  Like rhetoric in Satyricon, where we meet many a honey-tongued seducer, sorcery or magic is a means of manipulating the human scene for despotically libido-driven purposes.  It is a technique of acquiring the chattels of other people or of subduing those people to one’s will by naked compulsion.  Lucius, for libidinous reasons, is eager to acquire such techniques.  He speaks of the “delirium of impatience” under whose impetus he positively longs “to take a running leap into the abyss,” as he says, of occult instruction.  The Golden Ass tells its story retrospectively, so that these descriptions take on a confessional significance.

No sooner has Lucius arrived at his host Milo’s establishment in Hypata, but he violates the ancient rules of hospitality by starting a torrid sexual affair with the scullery maid Photis.  She is a willing respondent.  Photis divulges to Lucius that her employer’s wife, Pamphile, is a capo di tutti capi of witches in the region, renowned and feared for her mastery of magic.  Under Photis’ urging, Lucius spies on the midnight transformation of Pamphile into an owl, but when he tries the trick himself Photis has confused which magical ointment of her mistress is which.  The calamitous upshot of her confusion sees the headlong experimenter changed, not into a wise owl, but into a braying ass.  It is the “abyss” indeed!  Undone by his “curiosity,” for which another word is libido, Lucius begins his yearlong tribulation in asinine form under the blows of sadistic masters and amidst the terrors of a lawless world.  Lucius’ transgression is the same as Encolpius’ transgression in Satyricon.

Lucius not only suffers personally in consequence of his declension of spirit; he must also bear witness close at hand to the insouciant folly of many others.  Impressing him into service as a pack animal, the robbers take him to their mountain-lair.  Lucius learns by eavesdropping about the bloody calamities that befall these criminals as they swagger about in their depredations.  The robber-chieftain Lamachus, for example, gets his hand nailed to a door while attempting to pick its lock; in unseemly haste his cohorts chop off the hand in order to facilitate their captain’s escape.  He, fearing that the loss now wholly unfits him for his thieving ways, falls on his sword in despair.  Lucius learns also of the rampancy of lascivious desire.  Lascivious desire breeds both sexual betrayal and cold-blooded murder – by those whose lust bends ever to novel objects of their old, now encumbering partners in oath and life.  In one instance, which may stand for many others, a newlywed stepmother simmers in lubricity for her eldest stepson; when he rightly rebuffs her, she murders the lad’s younger brother and then falsely accuses the one whose moral rectitude made him averse to her in the first place.

Ralli, Theodore Jacques (1852 - 1909) Odalisque

Theodore Jacques Ralli (1852 – 1909): Odalisque (1880s)

Again, Lucius has his eyes opened to a universal and morally repellent hunger for cruel entertainments that appeal to the most brutal propensities of a degraded audience.  One instance is the quasi-sacrificial “Festival of Laughter” in Hypata.  This annual affair deludes an innocent – usually an unsuspecting visitor to the town – into thinking that the magistrates plan to torture and kill him for a crime he never committed, but for which the townspeople have conspiratorially framed him.  Other instances are the many pornographic-sacrificial displays put on in the hippodromes by wealthy big-men who hope thereby to curry favor among the plebes and so pave the way to a greater share in political power, with its tempting perquisites.  In one episode near the end of the narrative, just before Isis extends mercy to the long-suffering penitent, Lucius foresees having to copulate in the arena with a condemned prostitute-murderess.  At the climax of the performance both the beast of burden and the lady-criminal will become live meat for a sportive-punitive unleashing of ravenous beasts.

Everyone including Lucius blames the painful consequences of his own ugly deeds, or of his own perverse quirks, on “Fate.”  Lucius for his part would derive his catastrophic metamorphosis, not from his rash dabbling in Pamphile’s dangerous pharmacy, but (as he says) from the “perverse malignity of my Fortune” and from “Fate.”  He would derive the items of his subsequent penitential itinerary from “Fortune… totally blind,” “Cruel Fortune,” and “the disastrous rage of Fortune.”  Yet in many of the calamities that he observes, that befall other people, he can descry at work, not a fickle deity, but rather such entirely human phenomena as “the baleful glance of envy,” “cruel envy,” and “curiosity” as the “undoing” of the impetuous agent.

At the heart of The Golden Ass readers find the inset story of “Cupid and Psyche.” Cupid falls in love with Psyche against the wishes of his mother, Venus.  Cupid marries Psyche, and brings her to his airy palace, where she will live a blessed life provided that she obeys but one injunction.  That injunction is: Never to look at her husband, who visits her exclusively at night, when darkness hides his identity.  Now part of the story is that Psyche has two evil sisters.  These siblings at first equate Psyche’s absence with death, about which they make a great public display of hypocritical sorrow and piety.  When they learn of Psyche’s new status, however, they seethe with covetousness.  “If you should hear their lamentations,” says Cupid to Psyche, “do not answer or even look that way, or you will bring about heavy grief for me and for yourself sheer destruction.”

Bouguereau, Adolphe-William (1825 - 1905 ) Ravissement de Psyche (1895)

Adolphe-william Bouguereau (1825 – 1905): Le Ravissement de Psyche (1895 – Detail)

Admitted against counsel the siblings work on their sister’s guilelessness to incite her against her husband.  Her breaking the oath of secrecy results in Psyche being cast down.  She must undergo an ordeal until proving her virtue Venus herself salvages the girl and countenances her son’s wedded bliss.  The sisters perish.  The pronouncement that Apuleius makes about them indeed implies something startling about his view of the world.  After their first visit with Psyche, as Apuleius writes, “the worthy sisters on their return home were now inflamed by the poison of envy.”  Looking for a formula to justify their jealousy, one sister says to the other: “You see the blindness, the cruelty and injustice of Fortune… content, it would seem, that sisters of the same parents should fare so differently.”  By the associative property, these sentences reveal that the much invoked Fate or Fortune of the novel’s characters does not exist.  Or rather that it exists not as an omnipotent divinity but simply as a projection of the envy, a form of libido and thus also a type of poison, that impels into disaster those who give way measurelessly to their own rabid drives.

IV. Saint Augustine, who knew and admired The Golden Ass, grappled with the same moral phenomena as the Second Century Neoplatonist in codifying the Biblical theology that he then bequeathed so informatively to medieval Christendom. Augustine’s Confessions resemble both Satyricon and The Golden Ass in any number of ways, for the Saint’s autobiography is, like both of them, a first-person narrative of embittered wandering and of spiritual, if not of material, suffering; and the Confessions tell a story of conversion that turns on a decisive rejection of Fatalism. Let the discussion of the many details be deferred to a less crowded occasion than the present one.   More important than the details are a few salient facts about Augustine’s life.  These will help in elucidating the Saint’s case against Fatalism.  In his adolescence and early manhood, Augustine was a creature of his rudest appetites, much as is Petronius’ or Apuleius’ main character.  He habituated the brothels of Thagaste, his native town, and of Carthage, where he found his first professional employment as a teacher of rhetoric.

Augustine also experimented with religion, investing no little faith in astrology and associating himself for ten years with Manichaeism.  The former is the fatalistic science par excellence, while the latter is a popular theology of the time that articulates a doctrine to make of existence the opposite of what the common Jewish and Christian view makes of it: A wretched condition to the meaninglessness of which an evil sub-deity has condemned people rather than a benevolent Creation over which God puts humanity in stewardship.  Augustine liked theatricals and gladiatorial games as much as he liked brothel crawling, but during the long transformation of his character, he came to see that in their ubiquity pornographic display and blood sport were all at once symptoms of an old morality in calamitous deliquescence and primary influences on many an individual tragedy, including in all likelihood his own.

Alma-Tadema, Lawrence (1836 - 1912) Vintage Festival (1871)

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912): Vintage Festival (1871)

Murray includes Augustine in what he calls the spiritual “failure of nerve” of Late Antiquity.  The religiosity of Late Antiquity strikes Murray metaphorically as “a wilderness of weeds… rank and luxuriant and sometimes extremely beautiful, with a half-strangled garden flower gleaming here and there in the tangle of them.”  Murray cites the case of the Stoics.  Although the Stoics began with a commitment to logic and due skepticism, latterly they “found themselves admitting or insisting that the… consensus [of opinion] proved the existence of daemons, of witchcraft, of divination.”  Pace Murray, a careful reading of Augustine’s Confessions will, however, reveal a logical thinker who knows how to deploy a syllogism, a defender of natural science as the basis of essential knowledge, and a skeptic of luxuriant or fantastic theology.  Augustine insists, for example, that much of the Old Testament needs to be interpreted allegorically rather than literally.  Indeed, he writes at one point that taking Scripture literally is a sure way to murder belief.  Importantly, Augustine shares with Petronius and Apuleius an anti-Fatalistic insistence on moral causality.

If envy were one toxic assault on happiness, as it is in Satyricon and The Golden Ass, then mimesis – or, as the guidance counselors say, “peer pressure” – could be another.  Aristotle averred in his Poetics that human beings are the most mimetic, or imitative, of animals.  In Confessions, Augustine tells the tale of his friend in spiritual exploration Alypius, who had gradually and painfully weaned himself from addiction to the ruddy spectacle of the arena.  One day in Milan, however, Alypius met up accidentally with unreformed old companions on their way to the hippodrome; they cajoled him to accompany them.  Alypius closed his eyes so as not to see the coup de grace, but he could not stop his ears.  “When one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that… he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim he desired to see had been struck in his body.”  Augustine’s “audience” is the social ambiance always present to all of us; it is the democratic peerage.

It should be noted that Augustine in no way excuses Alypius’ lapse, on the notion, say, that Alypius could somehow not properly help himself.  Alypius might have known better than to yield to his “curiosity” and he might have taken heed not to overestimate his resistance to imitative Schadenfreude.  Lucius, in The Golden Ass, knew better than to dabble with substances he did not understood, but he dabbled with them anyway.  Encolpius, in Satyricon, knew better than to spy on rites in a private temple, where his eye had no business lingering, but he spied on them anyway.  A deliberate perversity always lies at the inception of the lapse from the middle way – this Augustine, after a long struggle, concluded – and thus at the inception of misery.  Augustine’s was a struggle, particularly, with Manichaeism, one of whose tenets asserted that, for the elect, sin is impossible because, while the body might stoop to pollute itself, the spirit remained immaculate.  To the Manichaean elect, all things were allowed.  Matter being evil the body sinned merely through an intrinsic, material proneness.  “I can’t help myself,” the body might say under the doctrine, thereby exonerating the spirit.  Manichaeism is thus particularly a dogma of Determinism; but it incorporated Fatalism, too, in its vast astrological credulity.

Augustine rehearses the long train of syllogisms by which he rejected Manichaean Determinism in Book VII of Confessions.  Here I will jump to his conclusion: As “whatsoever is, is good,” it follows that “evil, then, the origin of which I had been seeking, has no substance at all; for if it were a substance, it would be good.”  In stating that evil is not a substance, Augustine wipes away every excuse that invokes either luck or inexorability to explain an individual’s condition.  The individual, possessing free will, is himself responsible for his lapses, his transgressions, and his unhappiness.

Are modern people so different from their ancient counterparts?  Consider the movies that pack college students into the multiplexes on the weekends.  These are special effects driven exercises in a type of entertainment in its way even more repulsive than the worst of gladiatorial spectacle, depicting slow torture and homicide in detailed close-up.  Often a sado-masochistic sexual element weaves its way in and out of the violence, as in the money-making franchise called Saw.  No one really dies, but the appetite that the images assuage is the exactly same one formerly fed on split bodies and spilt blood in the coliseums and hippodromes.  As for that electronic prodigy the Internet, it is the digital equivalent of Satyricon’s speakeasy night-scene: All roads lead, apparently, to the virtual equivalent of the bordello.  We need Petronius, Apuleius, and the good old Bishop of Hippo badly.  We need them now, to remind us that it is a big fat lie when we petulantly shout, “I can’t help myself.”

7 thoughts on “Three Late-Antique Narratives (Part II)

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

  2. We can give the phrase “failure of nerve” a fatalistic or a voluntaristic meaning. In other words, a positive or a normative meaning. In Spengler’s cycle, for instance, there is simply a point where the nerve of a great culture fails, and it looses its creative capacity. I think what I’m getting at is that there is no disinterested perspective on fatalism, and that one’s understanding of fatalism must presupposed the truth or falsity of fatalism.

    Stoicism is as typical of fatalistic times as Epicureanism is. I think most post-modern Western people are Epicurean, but that Stoicism is also present. I teach a class called History and Nature of Geography each spring, and recently gave the lecture on environmental ethics in late antiquity. This involves a sketch of the dominant Hellenistic schools of philosophy. I asked the students if they identified with any of the schools. Sixty percent identified as Epicureans, thirty percent as Stoics, and ten percent as sound asleep.

    • Your classroom excepted, sleeping through college might be the best strategy. He who sleeps ain’t woke, after all. I come back to Kierkegaard. In The Sickness unto Death he defines sin, first of all, by its laziness and deliberate passivity (“deliberate passivity” being a necessary contradiction in terms). A sinner (and I class myself among the sinners) wants whatever convenient dodge he can get his hands on. Fatalism is a free-floating dodge in every society, there for the taking. I wonder, if he should recover, whether Jordan Peterson will continue to adhere to his Stoic ethos. Or will he find his way to Grace, which is the opposite of fatality?

  3. Offtopic: but I am looking for some expert advice. It is about something you guys know a lot about.

    Neoreaction realized that the religion of liberalism can only be defeated by another religion. It was originally understood in the very broad sense of religion: big overarching story, but gradually we are rediscovering that it has to be Christianity. But of course there is still the issue that our purpose is mostly social and political, while for Christianity the primary purpose is salvation and making a nicely functioning society is just a bonus. But we are getting closer and closer to each other.

    From the social-political perspective, Puritanical “excessive holiness” creates a lot of problems. But from the spiritual perspective it is a bit different: if God is the Summum Bonum, how could a man be too godly? From the spiritual perspective, this kind of virtue cannot lead to vice when it is excessive. It is not the kind of worldly virtue that requires a middle way between lack and excess.

    But I think there is a different kind of Christian perspective on this. That virtue can become vice not merely through excess, but also through being somehow distorted or corrupted. So it is not as much as excessive holiness, but more like holiess distorted or corrupted into spiritual pride.

    If there is such a perspective or theory, could someone give me some pointers to it? Thank you in advance.

    • A “holiness spiral” is just status seeking in the religious idiom, and Christ made clear that it always leads to hypocrisy–the “show” of piety rather than the substance. You will notice that many people who lament “holiness spirals” are themselves making quite a show of their lamentation. In any event, a healthy society harnesses status seeking and puts it to work doing things that are useful to the society (just as a healthy society harnesses the primitive drives of lust and greed). All of these primitive drives can be social or antisocial. Lust can be channeled into family formation, or can cause young males to murder each other in knife fights.

      The direct answer to your question is that fanatical godliness is bad when it gives godliness a bad reputation. A Christian’s first responsibility is to get his own soul into Heaven; but his second responsibility is to do this in a way that doesn’t disgust a dozen other souls and send them to Hell. I’m simplifying, of course, but you see my point.

  4. @Dividualist: Your comment is by no means off-topic. The perspective or theory that you seek is in Scripture and in the thought of the Church Fathers. Liberalism is very likely itself the distortion and corruption of Christianity that you invoke. All liberal virtues have been parodic from their beginning and in recent times have become increasingly so — and increasingly fanaticized. I recently wrote about Rosalind Murray here at The Orthosphere. Murray’s book, The Good Pagan’s Failure, addresses your question. You might want to look into it.


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