Of course, the real victim in all of this is the kingdom itself. As the Bishop of Carlisle exhorted Parliament before it deposed Richard II:
My Lord of Herford here [Henry Bolingbroke], whom you call king,
There is simply no end to treason’s slippery slope, and the consequences – religious, moral, and political – affect more than the traitor’s private universe. The deep foundation of government being shattered, no ruler can speak with the ancient moral authority; there is no king, everyone does what is right in his own eyes (Jdg 21:25). This dissipation is, of course, rooted in the actions of the kings themselves.
The first decline of public spirit is Bolingbroke, whose usurpation of the crown can be cited (as it is by Falstaff) as a warrant for self-seeking on every hand. The second cause is Hal, who refuses to shore up law and ceremony to stay the confusion, but instead spreads unease by allowing, or even promoting, expectation of an indefinitely protracted period of self-seeking from the throne. (Alvis, “Spectacle” 116)
Law (which is nothing if not a restraint upon our selfish desires) is difficult to enforce when the king himself is unrestrained. The underlying fault of these kings is their subjection of the spirit to the polis, of virtue to power; a subjection that is Machiavellian in both its spirit and its letter.
In Shakespeare, we see the emergence of a line of political men—notably Henry IV and Henry V—who are partly Machiavellian, and partly Christian, and whose Christianity and Machiavellianism subsist in a certain kind of harmony . . . . Their self-interest has taken on a patriotic cast, and they expect God will forgive their sins. They think He will recognize the merging of this self-interest with a new, national conception of the common good. (Jaffa 41)
Yet, both historically and poetically, such blessings never materialize. English harmony, patriotism, and the common good have always found their expression in “God, King, and Country,” and in rejecting the first two the third is not far behind. “The folk are no longer unified by a common purpose; they can be flattered into consent by an ambitious monarch; faction rises against faction among the lords; what finally ensues is cousin against cousin and father against son” (Cowan 87). And so, righteous Carlisle’s blood cries out against those who refused to listen to his pleas. In the words of Bloom, “A long and bloody path leads from Richard to Henry VIII, a path on which Englishmen learn that kingship is founded on nobles and commoners as well as on God” (66).
Shakespeare’s Henriad is more than a tragic sort of historical fiction; it is a gem of political wisdom. Therein the poet reminds us of the classical valuation of politics as the means to true happiness in virtue. But he does not do so by lecturing didactically, much less by exalting what is honorable in human government. Instead, he shows the royalty of preceding generations at its worst, to make clear to his generation their own place in the providential order of things. In his presentation of such figures, we come to understand that Shakespeare holds neither to the camp of ‘divine right,’ nor that of ‘popular sovereignty.’ Instead, “Shakespeare’s paradigmatic regime requires only that those who possess authority also possess a high degree of practical wisdom and devotion to promoting the public good” (Alvis, “Introductory” 19). Yet Richard, Henry, and Hal never measure up to this ideal because of their own pride and perverted sense of justice; and both their souls and their kingdom pay the price.
We turn, then, to the first of our three kings. When Richard II opens, the threat of rebellion is already present, but from Thomas Mowbray rather than the later usurper, Henry Bolingbroke (who is first seen as the chief witness against Mowbray). Richard’s handling of this matter is at first ambiguous – he temporarily banishes both men – yet he seems to have good reason to worry. Richard notes the public’s mourning at Henry’s departure and how he appears to prey on the crowd’s sympathy (1.4.23-26). But while Richard banished his cousin from the kingdom, he cannot banish him from his thoughts. Instead, at the death of Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, Richard seizes John’s property to ensure Henry can never inherit. But as the Duke of York warns (2.1.186-208), in a kingdom without lawful succession of father to son, not even the kingship is sacred. Bloom notes that, “the first two acts are intended to establish Richard as an evil king who deserves to lose his throne.” He continues,
He is shown to be a murderer, a thief, a wastrel surrounded by flatterers, lacking in all the familial pieties—a monarch without care or conscience. He is convicted before our eyes of all the accusations made against him, and this portrait is relieved by no charming features. Bolingbroke’s schemes are thereby given the color of justice. (Bloom 62; see our first post for works cited)
Yet only in the end do we see just how subtle Shakespeare’s views and purpose can be, as Cowan goes on to show:
We complete the play with compassion for Richard and with terror at the sacrilege committed against his person . . . . The play, finally, makes us see . . . that Richard has been a bad king who abused power, but that his deposing is an offense that could destroy all England. (Cowan 72)
Shakespeare thus proposes a third way to deal with a ‘bad king’: reform him. Throughout the play, Carlisle seeks to do just this, respecting the inherent authority of the office, while recognizing the imperfectability of the one who holds it (3.2.27-62). Character is the only sure foundation for leadership. The primary political purpose of Richard II, then, is to set forth “a thoroughly traditional English concept of the sacredness and authority of the office, with the king deemed answerable not only to parliament and law but to the higher powers of justice and love” (Cowan 77). Royal humility is therefore the key to royal character, noble support, and popular consent.
Yet Henry Bolingbroke learns this truth only too late. He returns early from his exile merely to regain his rightful inheritance (Richard II 2.3.128-135), but when he realizes that he has both the support of the people and the assembled strength of the nobles, he loses his initial humility and prudence, and overreaches his rightful station to seek the crown itself (4.1.113). His “just cause” becomes self-righteousness, which degenerates into self-interest and self-assertion. Thus, Richard II is a tale both of Richard’s hubris and of “Bolingbroke’s grasping of the crown and thereby his loss of innocence. He thought he would purge the throne of a stain left on it by Richard’s having committed the sin of Cain, but he is constrained to commit the same sin in order to found his rule” (Bloom 59). Just as Richard is condemned for murder, theft and pride, Henry founds his reign on pride, murder and hypocrisy, and thereby commits moral and political suicide.
And by deposing the king and showing pleasure at his murder (Richard II 5.6.40) he removes all traditional grounds of legitimacy. “It is ridiculous to suppose that Henry can command instinctive loyalty. That is exactly his problem. Attachment to him must be born of wisdom, beneficence, and strength, for he is beginning afresh without the sanctions which were available to Richard” (Bloom 67). Henry has founded his reign upon violence, and so violent he must be, or else lose the authority he has seized. Henry finds that he cannot rely solely on the conservative customs of monarchy, nor on the filial obligation owed to him as king, so he must instead provide an outlet for his violent nature as well as a means to fulfill the expectations of his subjects. So at the close of Richard II, the newly crowned king finds himself drawn to the Crusades:
Just as Henry does not try to restrain that [violent] impulse in himself, his political program aims not at restraining his subjects but rather at channeling their violence outward toward foreigners. Peace is not his goal but rather a ‘well-beseeming’ foreign war which will remove the destruction from England, and from Henry himself. (Trafton 101)
Henry seeks to avoid the consequences of his actions at home by seeking glory and honor at the expense of other peoples. Unfortunately, for both Henry and for England, “Rebellion engenders rebellion” (Trafton 103), and so the subject of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 is a three-pronged uprising that is far more costly for Henry and his country than he could have possibly imagined. But while such consequences are not intentional, they are preventable. Pride can be temporarily overcome by greater pride, but such a victory comes with greater consequences as well. Richard’s pride leads to the death of a king; Henry’s pride nearly destroys a nation.
Henry’s eldest son, Henry Monmouth, provides our final example of the moral and political causes and consequences of rebellion. Richard hides himself beneath the veil of divine right, regardless of his injustice. Henry Bolingbroke, does his best to keep up the conventional customs so that he might at least appear to be just. Henry Monmouth, however, follows a third path: he knows what it means to be just, but waits for the perfect moment to reveal just how just he can be. Prince Hal reveals his intent in the second scene of 1 Henry IV.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
To Hal, then, “justice” is merely a tool to control the masses, to unite the affections of his people to himself as an individual, rather than to his royal office. Hal therefore rejects both Richard’s arrogant self-righteousness and Henry’s proud piety and turns to naked, self-willed pragmatism.
Yet here, Hal merely exemplifies what has already been implied by the examples of his immediate predecessors: you cannot be just without doing what is right and doing it for the right reasons. Each of these kings struggles in his own way with an understanding of justice that “would subordinate all his actions, public or private, to the good of England” (Alvis, “Spectacle” 117). But once this natural and divine standard is rejected one can only turn inwardly, for to reject good government is to reject its sacramental reflection of a higher reality. To the mind of the young prince, “God will favor Henry not because he is king but because he is Henry” (Alvis, “Spectacle” 118). But Hal receives no such favor. When confronted with his sins, Richard repents but loses his kingdom, Henry regrets but loses his soul, and Hal languishes on, neither penitent nor sorrowful, master of many but slave to all.
William Shakespeare is perhaps the single greatest writer in the English language. His themes and his characters stand both as representatives of his own age as well as windows into ours. Such timelessness allows each generation to see something of itself in his work, leading to a realm of study and enjoyment that is in a perpetual state of flux. One trend, which has emerged within the last generation or so, reveres Shakespeare not only for his affective power as a poet, but also for his wisdom as a philosopher, particularly in his views on things political. That politics is a concern for Shakespeare at all should be apparent by the subject of many of his plays, particularly his histories and tragedies, though even in a comedy like The Tempest we glimpse something political.
Yet Shakespeare is neither a political pundit nor an artist with an axe to grind. Instead, he views politics in the classical sense, “in terms of education, manners, morals, religion, and ethics” (Alvis, Introductory 8), an emphasis supported by his repeated use of Greek, Roman, and Christian sources throughout his works (Alvis, Introductory 5). Of his several works, The Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) is particularly conducive to such an emphasis. Throughout these plays, Shakespeare presents the causes and consequences of rebellion in a way that invites us to delve into the religious and moral aspects of what is now regarded as a purely political act. Our discussion here will examine these aspects by focusing on the character of each of these kings before tracing the consequences of their choices for the kingdom as a whole.
In modern democracies, such as our own, politics and religion maintain distinct and distant spheres. Yet for the audience of Shakespeare’s day, government was always religious (even sacramental) in its form and function. Toward the end of Richard II, a parliament has convened to try and convict Richard of crimes against the nation so that Henry Bolingbroke might assume the throne “Without suspicion” (4.1.157). The king’s only defense comes from the aged and loyal Bishop of Carlisle:
What subject can give sentence on his king?
Carlisle begins by invoking the nobles’ sense of justice. Any one of them would cry foul if he were summarily arrested, prosecuted and executed by the authorities. The bishop, however, is not merely concerned with the illegality of their actions; he reminds them that their relationship to the king is divinely sanctioned. God Himself has providentially set Richard on the throne, placed him as their lord and master, and has set them under his authority. To remove Richard from the throne is to usurp God Himself and to deny His authority and their need for His favor.
Here, Carlisle draws on the teachings of the apostle Paul himself, a passage commonly used throughout history as prima facie evidence for the ‘divine right’ of kings:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. (Rom 13:1-2 NKJV)
In other words, our outward submission is indicative of an inward reverence; when we submit to the authorities, our soul is in harmony with God’s providential will. But as is seen in the sentence that follows, the opposite is also true: outward resistance indicates a disorder of the soul, a rejection of God’s will both for the individual and the community—both of which incur judgment. Rebellion, then, says as much about the rebel as it does about the ruler.
Over the last few weeks we have surveyed some of the ethical content contained in the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK). We have discussed the general nature of trawthe as “faith, fidelity, and integrity,” we have unpacked its religious character, and we have seen how such forthrightness might clash with social expectations. Yet when we left Gawain on his third and last day at Sir Bertilak’s castle, the good knight believes himself to have done quite well against his hostess’s advances. He has remained faithful to his host not only by mitigating the dishonorable intentions of the lady but also by returning to that man the kisses he won each day from the lips of that man’s wife!
Yet here is Gawain at his most vulnerable point in the work: in the rush of victory. “At the moment when Gawain believes he has safely emerged from his ordeal for the last time, the lady launches an attack more difficult to recognise or resist” (Winny 149; see our first post for works cited). She implores him to accept from her a token of unfulfilled love but when he refuses it, she instead offers him a girdle or belt that can strengthen his body to sustain the blow he is to receive the next day. “For whoever is buckled into this green belt, / As long as it is tightly fastened about him / There is no man on earth who can strike him down, / For he cannot be killed by any trick in the world” (SGGK 1851-1854). The lady therefore follows up her obvious assault upon Gawain’s virtue with a subtler tactic, appealing to the knight’s fear of impending death rather than his natural desire for carnal pleasure. After all, what is more right than seeking to preserve a life, even one’s own? But can he accept the girdle with her added stipulation not to reveal it to her husband that evening? For the first time, Gawain breaks one of his compacts. As Engelhardt notes, by accepting the girdle,
Gawain was enabled to appease her and thus conveniently to preserve his reputation for courtesy toward women. But in that very act he proved ungenerous, and therefore discourteous, to her husband; he sinned against piety and derogated his valor . . . . Thus Gawain had willfully placed himself in a new dilemma; he could not fulfill one compact without breaking the other. (222)
Yet there is something more at stake here. To this point in the plot, Gawain has sought protection and strength through his faith alone. By accepting the girdle, not only is he acting out of disdain for his host, but perhaps even for the Lord Himself:
As he goes to his fate, he is faced with conscious choice between the dictates of self-interest and Christian honor—between faith in Christ and Mary that he will be saved by grace, or at least granted the courage necessary to end his life with dignity and moral perseverance, and faith in himself that he will be able through his own wits either to prepare himself in such a way as to be invulnerable to the knight’s ax blow or to avoid the confrontation altogether. (Champion 416)
Accepting the girdle therefore violates every one of the five senses of trawthe represented by the pentangle. Just as “the pentangle on Gawain’s shield [is] a symbol of truth . . . the green sash is a symbol of falsehood” (Champion 421). He has determined to face the Green Knight not in courage but through deception; he has broken his agreement with the host to trade his winnings at the end of each day; he has denied the spiritual strength given by Christ through Mary; and he has surrendered his character for the sake of courtesy and his reputation. In the words of Myer, “His acceptance of the girdle, normally an item worn by a knight in tournament and therefore part of chivalric array, will ironically strip him of his internal virtues.”
This new reliance on the girdle above the faith and fidelity represented by the pentangle (the five-pointed star which adorns his shield) is seen in the manner in which Gawain arms himself. Not only is the account of his rearmament absent of any mention of that star, but the placement of the girdle seems to remove it from sight completely. “The implications is that in wearing the green girdle over his red surcoat (lines 2035-6), Gawain gives it pride of place over the pentangle (the symbol of his trawthe), and possibly that the pentangle is actually hidden by it” (Anderson 313). Even as he prays to God for deliverance, then, he is in fact “not relying on God but on the belt to save him” (Winny 152). It therefore comes as quite a shock to Gawain when the Green Knight reveals the cause for the scar he has given him at the Green Chapel. Arthur’s knight immediately understands his fault. “Gawain accuses himself of cowardice because fear for his life led him to accept the girdle from the lady, and covetousness because he kept the girdle instead of giving it to his host” (Anderson 314). Yet in spite of these things, the Green Knight seems more than willing to forgive him.
Bertilak acknowledges Gawain’s fault, but considers Gawain absolved of it (2395–99), and although Gawain lacks absolute perfection, he is still pre-eminent among other knights ‘in god fayth’ – which may mean both the good faith with which Bertilak is speaking and also the quality in which Gawain surpasses other knights. (McCarthy 305)
But how can Gawain maintain his prominence among other knights in the face of this humiliating revelation of his untrawthe? For an answer, McCarthy replies simply that “If Gawain fails in his trawthe in concealing the girdle, his subsequent actions prove that his fear of death has caused him to lapse, not to abandon his trawthe entirely” (McCarthy 304). Forgiveness, sought through confession and repentance, is the knight’s only path back to virtue. For this reason, Champion interprets this final scene with the Green Knight in terms of grace. Since “Gawain’s fault in accepting the protective girdle is clearly presented . . . in Christian terms . . . it behooves us to consider the Christian conditions under which the poet wrote,” namely, “whether salvation is achieved by divine grace or by human merit” (Champion 415). He continues:
In effect, Gawain’s devious attempts to save himself have been ignominiously exposed as shameful and worthless. Both the scar on his neck . . . and the sash which he now insists upon wearing outwardly as a symbol of his guilt and subsequent repentance . . . betoken his dependence upon an outside force superior to his own for his personal and spiritual safety . . . . Indeed, his fellow knights insist upon donning similar green sashes to betoken their gladness and to acknowledge their analogous human condition and dependence upon grace for salvation. (416-417)
Engelhardt adds that this is the poet’s intention from the very beginning. “The moral of his poem is not merely that man should curb his fear or rein his lust or keep his word” but that “the pride of magnificent kings, or gray-eyed queens . . . is illusory” (Engelhardt 224).
The pentangle is a symbol full of meaning both morally and spiritually. It is the heart of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in that it conveys the ideal of the complete man as depicted in Gawain himself. Yet even after the pentangle is removed from sight, its characteristics are seen in the trials Gawain faces and the choices he makes throughout the remainder of the poem. Clearly, the story could be taken at face value but there is a meaning that requires more than a superficial reading. “Thus, while there is no consistent allegorical level to which all significant details in the narrative cohere, the poet uses symbols to express moral values through the literal story” (Champion 425). He reminds us of the values of a martial society, of the importance of the spoken word, of a faith that transcends earthly circumstances, of one’s need for a consistent character, and (perhaps most of all) that in the end, we simply can’t do it by ourselves.
As the plot progresses in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), the poet reminds the hero of his sacred charge: “Now take care, Gawain, / Lest fear hold you back / From leaving on the quest / You have sworn to undertake” (SGGK 487-490; see our first post for works cited). Unfortunately, a year later Gawain makes this very mistake. He remembers his oath and departs Arthur’s court seeking the Green Chapel and the fate that awaits him there. Outwardly, he shows no fear in his departure; “He did not linger there, / But swiftly went his way” (SGGK 687-688). What fear he has is not in the trials that await him but the eternal echoes of his deeds in life. And as he defends himself against the wiles of the wilderness, he remembers well his faith and fidelity. He then rides “through the realm of England, / Sir Gawain, in God’s name, though he found it no pleasure . . . . And [with] no one but God to talk to on the way” (SGGK 691-692, 696). And though he meets many dark creatures throughout his journey, each time he triumphs not through his own strength, but through faith and hope. “Had he not been valiant and resolute, trusting in God, / He would surely have died or been killed many times” (SGGK 724-725).
Weariness, however, eventually sets in. The knight is worn down, burdened by the cold, lonely quest that is set before him. And through such weariness, the first hint of doubt sets in, doubt in his ability to follow through with his promise. This doubt, though, has not eliminated his faith in God. He rides until Christmas Eve and then, having lost his last bit of strength, he seeks divine aid.
And therefore sighing he prayed, ‘I beg of you, Lord,
His faith therefore provides him strength, and while immediate physical comfort is still distant, his hope stands firm. The prayers he prays were familiar to the readers of the poet’s own age, especially his adjuration of Christ’s blood. This expression is, “A phrase from the Primer, the more-or-less standard elementary school textbook from which children in the later middle ages first learned to read, where it is associated with the Paternoster [Latin Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer, Mat 6:9-13], Ave Maria, and Creed (cf. lines 757-8). Children in school would say the phrase and these three devotions, the first ones to be learned, before reciting the alphabet” (Anderson 309).
It is at this moment that respite comes. “Hardly had he crossed himself, that man, three times, / Before he caught sight through the trees of a moated building” (SGGK 763-764). The arrival at Bertilak’s castle is clearly intended to delight both the knight and the reader. “There is a sense of the miraculous about the sudden appearance of the castle, an indication perhaps that Gawain has indeed received supernatural help in his search for the green chapel, a search which in realistic terms he has little hope of bringing to a successful conclusion unaided” (Anderson 309). Yet the sudden splendor of the building may just as likely represent the first of the subtle deceptions Gawain is to suffer throughout his sojourn. It persuades him to let his guard down, to relax, to grow complacent. “If the glow of life within the gracious castle made temptation the more insidious, this was but a reminder that man must not presume upon divine mercy, that his experience of mercy must not relax his vigilance any more than the apparent severity of justice must occasion despair” (Engelhardt 224). Just as faith strengthens the knight on his journey, fidelity should alert the hero to any assaults upon his integrity. But the potential for temptation does not even occur to our hero, instead, he “graciously takes off his helmet, and devoutly thanks / Jesus and St Julian [the patron saint of hospitality; Winny 145], who kindly are both, / Who had treated him courteously, and listened to his prayer” (SGGK 773-775).
Once inside, Gawain receives a warm welcome, and is granted a great freedom by the lord of the keep. “He said, ‘You are welcome to do as you please / With everything here: all is yours, to have and command / as you wish’ ” (SGGK 835-837). Yet once again, the devil lurks just beneath the surface. To check this freedom requires an even greater reliance on his faith and fidelity, an increased effort that seems unlikely given his long travels and comfortable accommodations. The words of his host may also imply an even darker meaning. “This courteous encouragement to make use of everything at yowre wylle may hint at the freedom later offered to Gawain by the lady” of the house (Winny 145).
Gawain is further disarmed (literally and figuratively) by the behavior of other residents of the castle. “There he was stripped, with joking remarks, / That knight, of his mail-shirt and his fine clothes” (SGGK 860-861). The armor he puts off is heavy and as it is removed, off come the burdens of his quest and the vigilance of his virtue. Each of them longs to be with him and learn from him, knowing well the legends surrounding his name. He is,
the man to whom all excellence and valour belongs,
His reception, then, is that of a hero’s, but not merely or even primarily because of his mighty deeds, but rather because of his skill in speech. “Gawain is excitedly welcomed not as a renowned warrior but as the recognized authority on cultural behaviour, especially luf-talkyng 927, flirtatious chat” (Winny 146). There are two elements of foreshadowing at work here. The first is the downplaying of Gawain’s courage, which ultimately fails him, while the second is the luf-talkyng he shares with Lady Bertilak herself, which provides just such an opportunity for his fall.
Like every other aspect of the castle, the agreement Gawain makes with Bertilak seems innocent enough. As Bertilak suggests:
You shall stay in your bed and lie at your ease
Here, then, Gawain has an opportunity to display the trawthe represented in the pentangle; an exercise in full disclosure and candor to determine what the knight’s life looks like as an open book. “The exchange of winnings contest exemplifies the poem’s insistence on the relationship between inner and outer in its demand that the private be made public: that the events that take place in Gawain’s bedchamber should be reenacted each evening in the public space of the hall” (McCarthy 301).
Up to this point, the fair-minded reader can understand why Gawain expects nothing but good from this place. He is staying in a well-set castle with a gracious host, flattering servants, and a beautiful lady with whom he may freely and innocently converse. What more could the good knight ask for? The poet, however, warns both Gawain and the reader of the coming deceit in his description of the lady’s entry to the knight’s bedchamber the first morning of hunting.
And as he lazily dozed, he heard slily made
Clearly, these are not the winnings Gawain pledged to his host the night before. As if her behavior does not convince us of her intentions, her words this same morning certainly should. When Gawain offers to put on “proper dress” so they might chat, the lady rejects his suggestion and promises “something better” (SGGK 1220, 1223).
I shall tuck you in here on both sides of the bed,
Yet talking seems to be only the beginning of her plans for the trapped knight. The second half of this response is especially telling. It recalls Solomon’s account of a similar lady. One night a young fool walks by the king’s window, turns the corner, and heads toward a neighborhood known for its less than righteous activities.
And there a woman met him,
Yet unlike that young fool (vv. 21-23), Gawain is “not unmindful of his devotion to Mary nor “the hereafter awaiting the man that dies in mortal sin” and therefore he sees through this first direct temptation (Engelhardt 221). So why, then, does the knight not flee the chamber like righteous Joseph, leaving his clothes behind yet preserving his integrity (see Gen 39:7-18)? Quite simply, because that is not the polite thing to do; any temptation, even one such as obvious as this, is to be deflected rather than denied. “His code made him reject as sinful the love of another man’s wife . . . yet he must manage this rejection with humility and forbearance, with tact and a light touch” (Engelhardt 222; original citations omitted). So instead, for three days the knight afflicts his soul with the guile of the seductress. Just as she “Waited there strangely long to see when he would wake” (SGGK 1194), Gawain seeks to endure the temptation passively rather than flee the situation and risk insult or injury. Yet seduced he will be.
Last week we discussed the general nature of trawthe as “faith, fidelity, and integrity,” using the description of Gawain’s character by way of the five-pointed star (or pentangle). But in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) trawthe also has a more specific meaning in the work of the poet, which he expounds on by illustrating the significance of each of the five interlocking lines of the unending knot:
First he was judged perfect in his five senses,
The first pentad that the pentangle represents seems simple enough and would appear not to require any additional commentary. Most scholars apparently agree since, of the various authorities consulted for my own efforts here, only McCarthy even mentions this first five and then only to say that the poet’s reference to them “is in accordance with the pentangle’s overall symbolizing of trawthe in conveying a sense of general integrity or righteousness” (McCarthy 297; internal citations omitted). This explanation, however, is not what we would expect given the remaining pentads, in which the Gawain poet consistently uses symbolism. Instead, the poet may be pointing not only to senses in general, but to the heightened senses of a knight engaged in hand-to-hand combat, a fate for which Gawain is at that moment preparing himself, perhaps with divine aid. As King David himself once sang, “Blessed be the LORD my Rock, Who trains my hands for war, And my fingers for battle” (Psa 144:1; see 18:34; 2Sa 22:35). However, since nothing else in context seems to recommend any particular interpretation, I offer this one tentatively.
The second pentad is slightly more conducive to interpretation. Though a number of views may be expressed here, it is McCarthy’s that is most persuasive. He believes with Franklin that the mention of Gawain’s fingers in line 641 may be “an indirect reference to the folding of fingers as . . . exemplifying another sense of trawthe, that of ‘faith or loyalty as pledged in a promise or agreement,’” a view that is consistent with other passages throughout the work (McCarthy 298). For example, consider one of Bertilak’s final exhortations before leaving Arthur’s court: “See, Gawain, that you carry out your promise exactly, / And search for me truly, sir, until I am found, / As you have sworn in this hall in the hearing of these knights” (SGGK 448-450). Gawain, then, is an honest man whose trustworthiness and faithfulness as a party to an agreement will be tested to see if his word is truly his bond.
The third of these fives introduces a new element to Gawain’s integrity that is elsewhere only implied or mentioned in passing: his religious faith. Anderson lists the five wounds of Christ as His “nail wounds in hands and feet [and His] spear-wound in the side,” noting that these “are a usual medieval devotional subject” (308). The account of these five wounds may be noted from the Gospel of John. When Jesus was crucified (John 19:23), the Romans nailed His hands (specifically His wrists) to the cross to support His upper body. To secure His legs, the Romans would have laid one over the other and driven a larger spike through both feet (specifically His ankles), thereby creating not one but two wounds (see John 20:24-29). The fifth wound was inflicted postmortem to ensure His removal from the cross prior to the Jewish Passover, which was to begin at sunset:
Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. (John 19:31-34)
Thus it is in the physical existence of Jesus Christ and the power of His crucifixion that our knight’s “earthly faith” and selfless courage resides.
The fourth pentad both “derives from the third” and adds another dimension to this faith (McCarthy 298). Anderson identifies these five joys of Mary as “the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection [and] Ascension of Christ [as well as the] Assumption of the Virgin into Heaven,” another common “medieval devotional subject” (Anderson 308). The Christian origin of these first four joys is clear from the New Testament itself (see Luke 1:26-38; 2:1-20; 24:1-12, 50-53). The fifth, however, adds a specifically Catholic color to Gawain’s profession, rooted in an ancient belief in Mary’s own reception into Heaven (rather than a natural death). But how does this explain Gawain’s behavior toward Mary’s image? Why does he look to her in hope of deliverance? Hardman provides us the answer:
The connection between Gawain’s looking at the image of the Queen of Heaven and his unfailing valour is more than a boost to his morale such as a knight might gain from glancing at a picture of his lady before going into battle . . . . It recalls the promises frequently attached to Marian devotions, assuring the faithful of her help, especially at the hour of death, a number of which stipulate that the devotion is to be practised while looking at an image of the Blessed Virgin. (Hardman III)
It is therefore clear that to our poet the truly complete man is a man of faith, which even a cursory reading of SGGK or the poet’s other assumed works (Pearl, Cleanness or Patience) will tell us. What is perhaps more striking at first, however, is the application given in context. Rather than demonstrate Gawain’s faith through his observance of the traditional feasts or his daily prayer, the poet points to Gawain’s bravery and “fortitude” in battle. “Gawain’s courage is linked to his faith,” an emphasis “appropriate for the quest which Gawain undertakes, for it is a brief lapse in his courage in the face of death . . . that causes Gawain to accept and conceal the green girdle in breach of his agreement with Bertilak” (McCarthy 298; internal citations omitted). Like previous concepts associated with the pentangle, this relationship between faith and courage is also adapted from the New Testament. Compare the poet’s faith and imagery with the words of the apostle Paul:
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (Eph 6:10-13)
Though Gawain’s enemies are physical as well as spiritual, faith is the key to his strength and the assurance of his victory, if not in life, then in death.
The final pentad is the first and only grouping that raises the moral significance of the symbol to explicit terms. Here, our poet lists five of Gawain’s more attractive qualities: generosity, love of fellow-men, purity, courtesy, and compassion. Four of these five virtues are directed toward others while only one focuses on the kind of internal consistency that represents the heart of full trawthe. Engelhardt, however, places less significance on these individual traits than he does on their respective functions.
Since, however, the five virtues assigned to Gawain in that dilatation are not determinative or even quite discriminable, it has seemed more apt in this analysis to consider his predicament rather in terms of the three virtues that would govern the three domains of activity, the military, the religious, and the courtly, in which the complete knight, the veritable man, might demonstrate his perfection, or, as the poet has named it, his trawthe. These virtues shall be called valor, piety and courtesy. (Engelhardt 219)
In either case, with either five virtues in mind or with three, Gawain is soon seen as a good, but conflicted man: what may be brave, may not be best; what may be right, may not be couth; what may be socially acceptable, may be far from courageous. This final sense of trawthe as “integrity,” is therefore about a balance between equally important, yet equally demanding aspects of one’s character, an ambiguity that forebodes future conflict for good Sir Gawain.
The pentangle, then, is the embodiment of the ideal of integrity. But this integrity is no accident. It arises from faith in the Son of God, looks to Him for comfort and courage, focuses his senses in the heat of battle, exhorts him to remain true to his word, and refines the habits of mind and body in order to shape his character. And in Gawain “these noble five / Were more deeply implanted . . . than any other” (SGGK 654-655). As McCarthy comments, “The quality of trawthe that Gawain embodies then is synonymous with the quality of nobility that all of the second estate should aspire to in order to justify their noble status and reputation” (300). The implicit question the poet asks is therefore whether such a standard is even possible. But what soon becomes clear, is that “The tests that Gawain faces . . . are profoundly related to the qualities that he has been shown to possess in the poem’s explanation of the pentangle’s symbolism” (McCarthy 299).
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) the poet depicts the latent strengths of Gawain’s character—and therefore the basis of his noble reputation—in terms of the armor in which he is clothed. Prior to departing Arthur’s keep, “In armour as he was, he went to hear mass / Offered and celebrated for him at the high altar” (SGGK 592-593; see our first post for works cited). Many of those courtiers prayed for Gawain’s safe return, but most mourned his tragic fate knowing that no man could survive a blow from one who had walked away holding his own severed head. But any wariness Gawain himself felt is hidden beneath the panoply with which he is armed:
Then Gawain seizes his helmet and kisses it quickly,
The virtue within is therefore seen through the beauty and strength displayed without: his readiness for combat, his perfection in prudence, and his respect for female gentility and skill. Yet at this juncture, the poet is far less eager to carry on the tale and instead “delays” Gawain’s fate, wanting to ensure that the reader truly grasps the gravity and grace of this knight:
Then they brought out the shield of shining gules,
So what of this five-pointed star, the pentangle? Why does the poet halt the story for forty-three lines to explain it to the reader? He obviously believes that “the symbol of the pentangle is . . . indispensable to the understanding of the poem,” as well as our appreciation of Gawain’s character (Engelhardt 218). The symbolism here, then, is primarily moral rather than mathematical: “As the pentangle may be drawn in one continuous movement, so it becomes the symbol of the complete man, whose integrity admits no imperfection; and it is this integrity in Gawain which the poem will show to be more apparent than real” (Engelhardt 218).
Gawain’s shield, like that of any medieval knight, serves two purposes: “declaring the bearer’s identity” and “warding off attack” (Hardman I). By placing the image of the pentangle on Gawain’s shield the poet thus seeks to identify Gawain as a man of integrity and to intertwine the shield’s protective power with Gawain’s own moral strength. As long as Gawain relies on his faith and fidelity he is protected, while any departure from these will endanger him both physically and spiritually. The poet reinforces this connection through the material used for the pentangle itself, “pure gold.” Gold is a “traditional image of moral purity” deeply rooted in the medieval mind, particularly through their contact with ancient Jewish and Christian sources (Anderson 307). For example, during the height of Job’s trials his friends provide him little comfort, yet aware of his own integrity and the righteousness of God’s judgment, he is not without hope. For “He knows the way that I take; When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10 NKJV; see Pro 17:3; 27:21; Zec 13:9; Mal 3:3). Anderson also points to a similar usage in an apocryphal work from the intertestamental period: “For gold is tried in the fire, and acceptable men [are tried] in the furnace of humiliation” (Ecclesiasticus 2:5 in Anderson 307). This test or trial may not always appear to be positive, but those who are acceptable to God understand that trials may not only be a cause for growth, but for joy as well. As the apostle Peter would later write:
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1Pe 1:6-7; see 1Co 13:12-13; Rev 3:18)
The overall meaning of the pentangle is therefore one of “fidelity,” as Winny translates the Middle English trawthe (or troth). The word has a variety of meanings, of which the most obvious is “truth,” with all its related connotations. “It embraces the concepts of loyalty, honour, fidelity and integrity. The last sense is especially important in the poem in the light of the way in which the poet explains the unity of the pentangle figure” (Anderson 307). Just as the continuously-drawn star is an organic whole that relies upon the unity and strength of each part, “the virtue of trawthe, as the poet presents it, is made up of all the other virtues, so that if Gawain should fail in any one respect then all his integrity (and therefore all his chivalry) is gone” (Anderson 307). As the poet writes,
Now truly, all these five groups were embodied in that knight,
Trawthe is therefore concerned not merely with believing the truth or speaking the truth, but being (as we would say) “tried and true” through the consistent application of truth in thought, word, and deed. This later correspondence is especially pertinent to the trials Gawain will face throughout his quest. “The poem’s testing of renown through the testing of Gawain’s embodiment of trawthe suggests that the two should be related: that excellence in reputation should correspond to nobility of character, and this is clearly the case here” (McCarthy 301).
For this definition of trawthe, the poet again draws on a common biblical idiom. When Yahweh looks down on the wickedness and evil intent of His creation, He finds one on whom He may bestow His favor. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” since he “was a just man, perfect [Hebrew tamim] in his generations. Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:8-9; see Job 1:1, 8; 2:3). In other words, he is a righteous and godly man of integrity. Later Solomon (the “designer” of the pentangle himself) employs a related term to make the same point and to teach one of its benefits: “The righteous man walks in his integrity [Hebrew tom]; His children are blessed after him” (Pro 20:7). And centuries later, the idiom is used once more by the half-brother of Christ to demonstrate an aspect of trawthe that rises repeatedly in SGGK (such as, at line 369): “For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect [Greek teleios] man, able also to bridle the whole body” (Jam 3:2; see Eph 4:13; Col 1:28). In each of these passages, integrity is about the completion, the perfection, and the attainment of truth in our inner and outer being. And it is from this common religious and moral heritage that our poet draws the moral significance of the pentangle.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, epic poetry is a genre that has not only peaked my personal interests but is also perhaps the most conducive to the sort of ethical reflection needed in our modern, science-driven culture. But (perhaps in part because of that very reason) it also the least studied (at least, outside the classroom). After all, as many might ask, what good are stories about magic and wizards and dragons, when we have reason, science, and so many of our own pressing problems to address right here and now?
The first of these works to catch my eye years ago was the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. At first glance, SGGK is just another one of these fantastical tales, and even worse, of that sub-genre that has revolved for centuries around King Arthur and his legendary knights. Yet Gawain’s experience is not about victory over monsters (though there are several mentioned), nor about his prowess on the battlefield (though his skill in combat is well known). Instead, there is a moral; a moral with a distinct religious and even Christian influence that forms the core of the poet’s views on our human condition. As Champion notes:
For, while Gawain is not . . . overtly didactic in tone, it is deeply imbued with Christian moral values and matters of contemporary Christian concern. So pervasive is this quality that critics now conclude that the author “was thoroughly familiar with the trends of religious concepts” and had read considerably “in the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, and throughout the theological treatises of the patristic writers.” (413)
These underlying theological and ethical concepts become increasingly clear not only through the primary narrative of our hero’s quest, but also in the “moral themes arising from the poet’s use of symbolism and allegory” (Champion 413). It is my purpose here to examine the specific symbolism of Gawain’s pentangle—the five-pointed star which adorned his shield—to demonstrate the primacy of trawthe not only in the character of Gawain himself but also in the trials that he faces on his quest.
We are introduced to Gawain in the main hall of Arthur’s castle, where the members of the Round Table have gathered for their annual Christmas feast. Gawain’s placement at the table indicates for us his relatively high standing among his peers: “There good Gawain was seated beside Guenevere” (SGGK, line 109). Though modern readers are more familiar with the later prominence enjoyed by Lancelot (that is, prior to his betrayal), “early Arthurian tradition” presented Gawain as “a mighty warrior”, “a paragon of courtesy,” and as “first in eminence amongst the knights” (303). The three essential elements of Gawain’s character are therefore implied by the tradition itself, in the words of Engelhardt, the virtues of “valor, piety and courtesy” (219). The poet then displays all three aspects of knight’s character, by way of his appeal to Arthur (his mother’s brother) to allow him to confront the Green Knight in the king’s stead:
‘I beg you in plain words
Here, Gawain is not merely addressing Arthur, but the reader as well, allowing us to see for ourselves his courage, reverence, and politeness. What we see, however, looks strange to our modern eyes. The knight is not merely waxing poetic, he seems to overdo these virtues, perhaps even exercising them to a fault. He clothes himself with a false humility and patronizes his master and host. So in our first scene with the knight, we see both the justification for Gawain’s renown in the Middle Ages, as well as the potential for the sort of lapse he suffers before returning to Arthur’s court.
Lord willing, we will continue our look at the character of Gawain next week by examining another of the poet’s devices: his description of the knight’s armor.
In the recent performance history of Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest, adaptations from the play have generally outnumbered more traditional productions of the Bard’s work. The result of this in modern times has led to a number of adaptations assuming the centrality of colonization in Shakespeare’s intent. Here we will briefly examine a case study of this approach and then posit an alternative method and the resulting impact on Shakespearean performance.
The surface meaning of Shakespeare’s play is fairly clear to the modern reader: injustice has a way of righting itself in favor of those unjustly treated, and rightfully so. The Tempest, however, is not without other influences, one of which is the European colonization of both Africa and the New World. Postcolonial readers, however (especially those outside of the English-speaking community), tend to overemphasize this ‘colonizing’ aspect of the play at the expense of other possibilities. Because of this, race (as opposed to natural justice) becomes “the central issue in Cesaire’s adaptation of The Tempest for a black theater” (McNee). Thus, as McNee notes, Cesaire assumes the primacy of colonization and rebuilds the play from the ground up:
Shakespeare’s play – at least on the surface – promotes Prospero as the legitimate ruler of Milan, rather than attacking the aristocratic hierarchy that legitimates him. Cesaire, on the other hand, presents Prospero as an usurper not only on the island, but also in Milan. Stephano and Trinculo become representatives of the down-trodden people, who view Prospero and other nobles as dictators, rather than as legitimate rulers.
Cesaire therefore turns Shakespeare on his head, and for political reasons at that; a cause such revisionists are proud of:
If literature courses are to change even a few students’ opinions about the current world order, instructors must first show students that postcolonial literatures are relevant to their lives. Cesaire’s text is ideal in this sense, for students clearly see racial tension as a significant factor in their lives. (McNee)
Cesaire’s adaptation, then, “reads into” Shakespeare’s work the reviser’s (and the professor’s) contemporary view of politics.
But Cesaire and McNee are also at least half right: Shakespeare does intentionally use imagery connected with colonization contemporary to his own time. Okamura demonstrates this well by reviewing Shakespeare’s use of William Stachey’s personal account of the colony at Jamestown as well as Virgil’s Aeneid (the latter via Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage). He goes on to note, though, that such an influence – both in Shakespeare specifically and among Renaissance writers in general – is far less about cultural and political imperialism and far more about the virtues needed to succeed in a new world. So while the effect of colonization on The Tempest is undeniable, it is hardly worth rewriting the play for:
On the one hand, it is now almost impossible to dissociate The Tempest from the discourse of colonization: this may not be . . . a play about the New World, but without the New World, The Tempest would be a different play. On the other hand, The Tempest is also Shakespeare’s most Virgilian play. (Okamura)
Rather than “reading back” into Shakespeare, then, Okamura listens to the Bard to determine the influence on Shakespeare achieved by other writers.
The direction of future Tempest performances is, of course, yet to be determined. Those involved in such productions, however, have a clear choice to make. On the one hand, there are performances of the play that conform to the expectations of the viewer, and on the other, there are those that reflect the form, and therefore the function, of the original. History has thus far preferred the former; but the more thoughtful viewer will always prefer the latter.
McNee, Lisa. “Teaching in the Multicultural Tempest.” College Literature 19/20 Issue 3/1: 195. EBSCO. 15 Nov. 2009.
Wilson-Okamura, D.S. “Virgilian Models of Colonization in Shakespeare’s Tempest.” ELH 70.3(2003):709. ProQuest. 15 Nov. 2009.
Alone in the Academy
Eric Miller, First Things
Some Advice for the Untenured Conservative Humanist
Mark Bauerlein, First Things
~ Part 1: Research
~ Part 2: Teaching
~ Part 3: Service
Teaching Calvin in California
Jonathan Sheehan, The New York Times
Think Teachers Aren't Paid Enough? It's Even Worse
Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post
Trigger Warnings & The Coddling of the American Mind
Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic
U of Chicago Says No to Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces
Jon Miltimore, Intellectual Takeout
Why Business Majors Desperately Need the Liberal Arts
Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic
The European Renaissance began in the 14th century after Christ, and lasted for nearly 300 years, building up to the advent of the modern age in the 1600s. After almost a millennium since the fall of Rome, classic works written in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and even Arabic, made their way out of obscurity and the East and into the fledging academies of Europe. As its name suggests, then, the Renaissance was a rebirth of the wisdom of the ages; a reengagement with classic literature as the foundation of a complete education and a life well-lived.
In the Preface to his book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom elaborates on what makes such rebirths possible, something he refers to as “the anxiety of influence” (7). No writer works in a vacuum. “There can be no strong, canonical writing without the process of literary influence” (7). A writer therefore works from within his own literary tradition in order to become canonical himself. So for the writers of the Renaissance, their influences should not be surprising, but these are perhaps overshadowed by Renaissance writers themselves: the Greek and Latin classics, apostolic and patristic writings, and the commentaries and scholarly works of their medieval predecessors.
Though we’ve written more extensively about this phenomenon elsewhere, and noted its place in the work of Chaucer, here we will briefly examine its role in the writings of four other Renaissance writers: Michel de Montaigne, John Donne, Francois Rabelais, and Niccoló Machiavelli.
We begin our survey with Montaigne. For the primary influence on which Montaigne’s thought and work relies, one may look to his Latin sources (especially Cicero and Virgil). Though he is also frequently refers to Dante and others, it is the Latin thinkers that form the core of both his reading and his writing. One example of this tendency is seen in his essay, “On the Education of Children.” Here, Montaigne seeks to instruct a personal friend on the form and function of the ideal education, complete with notes on methodology and the proper balance between reading, writing, and experience. One of the particular goals of such an education is to fashion a student who knows not only how and what to think, but how to express these things to others. He writes:
I personally believe – and with Socrates it is axiomatic – that anyone who has a clear and vivid idea in his mind will express it, either in rough language, or by gestures if he is dumb: [‘When the matter is ready the words will follow freely’ (Horace)] And as another author said just as poetically in prose, ‘When things have seized the mind, the words come of themselves’ [Seneca]. And yet another, ‘The subject itself seizes on the words’ [Cicero].” (Montaigne I.26, bracketed portions provided in the editor’s footnote)
To Montaigne, then, communication is the highest measure of understanding; if a student cannot express to you what he has learned, you have obviously not done a very good job teaching him, nor has he succeeded in learning his lesson.
Note also, however, the writer’s passing reference to Socrates (whose thought survives only through the writings of his students, especially Plato) alongside his more full corroboration from Latin: Horace, Seneca and Cicero. Only Virgil, his other perennial favorite is missing from our brief sample. In using these sources, Montaigne employs all the rules of literary thought. He understands literally what his sources are saying, he understands what these words meant in their literary, historical, and social setting, and he employs their words to shed light on similar circumstances in his own writings, in this case, on a child’s education.
Similarly, John Donne immersed himself in the great works of the past, often combining the classic themes of religious faith and romantic love. In his poem, “The Good Morrow,” Donne employs the use of hyperbole to relate the passionate power of love on the life of the beloved:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
To Donne, his relationship with his beloved has not merely become a microcosm of his life, it has become his life itself, replacing any other semblance of existence with a higher and indeed more spiritual one.
The depth of this spirituality is captured in part by the image cast in the fourth line: “Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?”. The line refers to an old Christian legend in which seven young men from the city of Ephesus fall asleep only to awake nearly two hundred years later to a continent almost entirely under the influence of patristic Christianity. So widely was the tale known, that Muhammad, in writing the Koran, included the account as an example of piety and faith. Donne, however, adapts the tale for his own purposes. Rather than recounting the details of the story, he expects his readers to understand the reference and the affective power inherent to the tale itself. Just as the Seven Sleepers lived for centuries in blissful ignorance of the triumphant happiness awaiting them, he and his beloved have existed in a mere dream, knowing neither life nor love. At their meeting, they awake to discover not only each other but also themselves, transcending their consciousness of the present and encompassing their memories in the clouds of the past. Donne therefore employs the event to evoke the dual image of ephemeral ignorance and enlightening joy.
Rabelais, however, cites the classics most prolifically, with far greater transparency, and usually to a humorous end. In his novel Gargantua, he parodies the Scholastic education of medieval Europe and puts forth his own model in comical form. He begins by recounting the noble lineage and strange birth of the title character (who, by the end of the work, becomes his ideal student) and in doing so broaches a series of interesting subjects that demonstrate both the depth and breadth of his prior reading. In his discussion of the proper term for pregnancies (which according to his sources could extend up to eleven months, counting inclusively), he mentions in passing Hippocrates, Pliny, Plautus, Marcus Varro, Censorinus, Aristotle, Aulus Gellius, Servius and (later on) Macrobius, as well as a number of legal works on the subject (Rabelais III).
The classics, however, are only the beginning for Rabelais. Though he is clearly well-read in both Greek and Latin, he often prefers the more contemporary works of the humanist Erasmus, as well as the Bible itself. The Erasmian influence is seen immediately in the author’s prologue and is alluded to throughout the work. The best example of both may be found in the sixth chapter of Gargantua. Note the subtle, and even comical understanding Rabelais demonstrates in his work, as elucidated by our translator:
Rabelais, recalling the old notion that the Virgin both conceived and delivered her Babe, the Word of God, through the ear, combines a medical romp with a comic sermon, both Erasmian and Lutheran. For the Sorbonnistes faith is the argumentum non apparentium (Hebrews 11:1), Latin which French-speakers may ignorantly take to mean an ‘argument of no apparency’. For them faith is believing something unlikely! Why then believe in the Nativity of Jesus yet not the nativity of Gargantua? Erasmus had shown that faith is not credulity. Faith, in the Greek original of Hebrews 11:1, is trust, trust in ‘the evidence of things unseen’ (in God and his promises). Mary did not at first trust the angel Gabriel: ‘How can these things be?’ Told of the conception of Elizabeth with its echoes of Sarah’s conception of Isaac, she was reminded from Luke 1:37, echoing Genesis 8. That is the punch-line of this chapter, which remains joyful from start to finish. The texts amusingly cited from Proverbs 14 and 1 Corinthians 13 to defend credulity mean very different things in context. (Rabelais 224)
Rabelais therefore satirizes Scripture by taking the literalistic approach to interpretation that is best suited for his satire. This allows him to play on words in a way that in any other context would be called sophistry or even blasphemy, but here is merely part of his general purpose to laugh and lead others to do the same. Compared to the previous two authors, Rabelais uses his sources quite differently indeed. Whereas both Montaigne and Donne interpret their sources in context in order to determine the intended meaning of the author, then make application for their own situations, Rabelais wrests passages from the Bible in a manner that can only be considered comical. His goal is as much to shock as it is to enlighten.
Machiavelli is also unique in his use of sources for The Prince. Of all the writers discussed here, he is most wary of the influence great writers and thinkers of the past have had on him (a textbook example of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence”). He does, however, make frequent use of contemporary examples from his own time, as well as classical and even biblical sources when they are needed to more adequately support his point. During one such discussion on the necessity of maintaining armies, he builds upon the familiar geopolitical examples of Europe, and then supports his conclusions by referring to Polybius and the Hebrew book of First Samuel.
Though I don’t want to stop using Italian examples which are fresh in mind, I cannot omit Hiero of Syracuse, whom I mentioned earlier. When the Syracusans made this man head of their armies, as I said before, he recognized at once that mercenary soldiers were useless, being formed on the same pattern as our Italian condottieri; and since he couldn’t safely keep them, nor yet let them go, he had them cut to bits, and after that he made war with his own armies, not with those of other people. I’d like also to call to mind a parable from the Old Testament which bears on the point. When David volunteered before Saul to fight with Goliath the Philistine challenger, Saul, to give the young man courage, offered him his own royal armor. But David, after trying it on, refused, saying he could never do himself justice in that armor. He preferred to meet the enemy armed simply with his own sling and a knife. In a word, other men’s armor will either slip off your back, or weigh down, or constrict your actions. (Machiavelli XIII; see Polybius 1.7-9 & 1Sa 17:38-39)
The stated reason for his choice of sources seems evident from the beginning of our selection. After all, why use examples with which your audience is not familiar? Certainly, most popular writers use as their material the common knowledge of those to whom they write. Machiavelli, however, takes this general theory and carries it one step further, placing the classics in the background and building his case using, as he says in his dedication, “everything I have learned over many years and come to understand through many trials and troubles.”
This reasoning, however, does not fully explain Machiavelli’s relative silence on the classics. Certainly his readers (particularly the Medici) would have been familiar enough with these sources, and Machiavelli is no populist. The better explanation, then, is that Machiavelli is trying to fashion a break with the classics, at least on the point of practical political treatises. Note his comments at the beginning of his fifteenth chapter:
It remains now to be seen what style and principles a prince ought to adopt in dealing with his subjects and friends. I know the subject has been treated frequently before, and I fear people will think me rash for trying to do so again, especially since I intend to differ in this discussion from what others have said. But since I intend to write something useful to an understanding reader, it seemed better to go after the real truth of the matter than to repeat what people have imagined. A great many men have imagined states and princedoms such as nobody ever saw or knew in the real world, and there’s such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation. (Machiavelli XV)
With this statement, we gain a clear grasp of Machiavelli’s chief criticism of the Greek and Latin classics: what they say is simply not realistic. Classical politics, built as it is on imaginary commonwealths, is simply too out-dated to be of use to the modern statesman. Instead, real value is to be taken not from philosophy but from history, to determine how to endure in power here and now, and not in some Platonic fantasy. Machiavelli therefore relies primarily on recent historical accounts and his own personal experience as a diplomat to educate the prospective or reigning prince, as opposed to the great ideas of the past.
Since their own generations, each of these writers has made his way indelibly into the libraries and minds of Western readers. They have successfully navigated the bounds of the Canon, reading it deeply, holding on to some sources, and at times rejecting others wholesale. Montaigne relied on his Latinists, Rabelais preferred the comic relief of early humanism, Donne sought to reconcile the spiritual and the carnal, and Machiavelli tried his very best to pretend he had never read anyone. All, however, worked from within the great tradition of Western thought, struggling with that “anxiety of influence” to earn a place in it for themselves.
Among the various undercurrents in The House of Fame, time is probably not the first that comes to mind. Fame is, of course, the poem’s major theme, but without time perennial praise becomes a mere passing trend. But there is a much more subtle function that time performs in Chaucer’s work by informing the narrator’s ideal of the poet’s role.
Of the three phases of time (past, present, and future) “Geffrey” (729) only explicitly mentions the last. When asked by a bystander whether he, too, has come to Fame’s house as a suppliant of her favor, he replies:
‘Nay, forsooth, frend,’ quod I.
Taken alone, the narrator here appears somewhere between apathy and arrogance; on the one hand, listless concerning his future reputation and on the other, with a sense of self-possession that borders on the blasphemous (since he is after all denying divine aid). But when we consider this passage in the context of time, could Chaucer be trying to tell us something about the future? Could Geffrey’s words reflect less his confidence in his own poesy and more his ambivalence toward an unseen fate?
Consider also the form of the poem, a dream vision. Writing in fourteenth-century England, in the midst of the plague, Chaucer’s daily life is anything but hopeful. The only other living person he even alludes to in “The House” is his wife, and even then, not positively (see 562, 652-660). When he writes, there is no clear sense of the present. Instead, his dream is more real and valuable to him than his concrete earthly experience. The vision (either literal or literary) affords the poet an escape from the nightmarish existence of everyday life. Escape, however, does not necessarily provide meaning. While taken as a guest to Fame’s abode, Geffrey witnesses a goddess as capricious as she is influential. Just as he cannot see meaning in the suffering around him, he cannot trust his fate to the arbitrary power of Fame. Neither the future nor the present therefore provide any sense of purpose for the poet.
It would be easy to point out the degree of skepticism inherent to Chaucer’s views thus far. Geffrey, however, neither stops writing nor ceases to find enjoyment in doing so. Though he finds no comfort in the present and no hope in the future, he develops a greater sense of understanding and meaning by drawing on the writers and thinkers of the past. Consider Chaucer’s sources. He draws extensively on Dante, Ovid, Virgil and the various Trojan myths while also alluding to the writings of Macrobius, Ptolemy, Horace, Statius, medieval French romances, the Bible. For both the poet and the reader, these influences are clear and as intimately familiar to him as old friends. The past is closer and more accessible to us than we think.
The House of Fame, then, does not present the poet as a prophet of the future, a reformer of the present, or a skeptical humanist, but as a conservator of our collective memory. Life is difficult, the future is uncertain, but the past is immutable. By learning from it, we gain a glimpse of human existence that is, in a way, more true than what we see here and now. Time therefore teaches us that the role of the poet is to convey a view of the human condition that is both timeless and timely, by bringing the wisdom of the ages to bear upon the strains of our earthly endeavors.
Scholars have long recognized the civic nature of much of Virgil’s work, and such is seen throughout the pages of The Aeneid. The most commonly cited passages, of course, are those scenes in which later Roman figures predominate the account, such as Aeneas’ conversation with his father in Hades (Book 6) and the description of his shield (Book 8). Yet dozens of lesser references are also scattered throughout the text, demonstrating the political motivations of his work. So, for example, Carthage is described as “drafting laws, electing judges, a senate held in awe” (Aeneid 1), while even in Hades, the dead are put on trial, “But not without jury picked by lot, not without judge” (6). Even more central to Virgil’s work, however, is the dynamic relationship between identity, memory and self-image. The purpose of this study will be to examine the significance of these themes in The Aeneid, and particularly how Virgil participates in the broader Augustan program of recasting Roman history and religion in light of the principate.
Virgil was no mere political pundit, and stuck to no party line. Instead, there was a certain tension to his work. On one hand, he sought to express his own hopes and fears for the new order ushered in by Augustus. As Freeman points out, “He was preoccupied, like so many Italians, with the need for peace” (460). On the other hand, he had an acute understanding of the “brutal realities involved in the struggle for power” (Freeman 461). Virgil the Patriot, then, wanted nothing more than to praise the accomplishments of Augustus and celebrate the Pax Romana the Emperor ushered in. Virgil the Poet, however, simply could not overlook the moral and political lessons learned over the previous fifty years of civil war, and therefore could not help but speak out concerning what he saw as a victory too hard-won.
Because of this tension between truth and context, Virgil was presented with a further conundrum: How does one praise the princeps, while subtly exhorting the senatorial class? Both Roman memory and Roman identity stood against him. “The Romans had never shown any hesitation in declaring that their wars of conquest were justified and they showed a similar confidence in their right to rule others” (Freeman 497). But Virgil understood his audience well, and therefore praises Rome’s role in the world: not to forge bronze, carve marble, plead cases or chart the skies (such menial tasks were for the Greeks), but to “rule with all your power the peoples of the earth—these will be your arts: to put your stamp on the works and ways of peace, to spare the defeated, break the proud in war” (Aeneid 6).
The poet therefore juxtaposes art and might, thus inviting the reader to participate in his very personal struggle. He reinforces this ambiguity by narrating scenes in which art depicts violence rather than demonstrate it (such as Aeneas’ shield), while also pointing out that these scenes spurred violence of their own (see Bartsch 323, 325). Thus, as Aeneas observes “the workmanship of the shield . . . . He fills with wonder—he knows nothing of these events but takes delight in their likeness, lifting onto his shoulders now,” and doing so again later in battle (Aeneid 8; see too 12).
For Virgil, then, he could not merely recount the historical founding of Rome, but needed instead to redefine what it meant to be Roman, while also developing the implications of this self-image for an imperial context. As Bartsch posits, “We could even say that the control of self and control over others are the twin goals of the poem’s ideological trajectory towards the foundation of Rome” (322). This, in part, explains Virgil’s choice of Aeneas as his prototypical Roman. A work written in his day on the rise of Caesar or Augustus would have been viewed as an overt political statement rather than art, thereby incurring either public animosity or regal wrath. By setting his epic many centuries prior, however, Virgil was afforded the opportunity to freely discuss Rome’s recent course of events, while placing any criticisms in the mouths of others.
Thus in The Aeneid’s sole passage addressing Julius directly, Aeneas’ father, Anchises admonishes, “never inure yourselves to civil war, never turn your sturdy power against your country’s heart. You, Caesar, you be first in mercy—you trace your line from Olympus—born of my blood, throw down your weapons now” (Aeneid 6; see Taylor 179)! Though the Aeneas-Julian connection may seem tenuous, the poet’s choice was not merely a matter of artistic license or self-preservation; it also allowed him to operate within the well-known Roman norms of collective memory, particularly among the senatorial nobles. “The dominant figures in Roman party politics and party organization were usually members of the hereditary noble or consular houses. By their traditions these houses kept alive the hallowed customs of old Rome, the mos maiorun” (Taylor 25). Virgil therefore found a balance between the requirements of art and power, truth and prudence, by creating a “glorious tradition for the Julian House” and critiquing the new order from within this new milieu (Taylor 27).
While Virgil, however, struggled with this tension personally and artistically, he also participated in the greatest re-imagining of Roman identity that ever took place. Virgil was not alone in observing the ambiguous grounds of the regime, however beneficial that regime might be. Augustus himself understood this better than most: his only predecessor in the principate was Caesar, who had been murdered by his closest confidantes. So after decades of internal strife, “One of the critical problems facing Augustus . . . was to reestablish a sense of unity amongst the Romans” (Orlin 74). Though in one sense, Octavian was the penultimate tyrant—hijacking the Roman Republic in its time of need, and through the sheer force of arms—once in power, Augustus was essentially the first enlightened despot.
He achieved this coup d'état by, “maintaining a proper balance between change and continuity, and . . . regularly presented his innovations as a return to older traditions rather than as revolutionary re-conceptions” (Orlin 88). Caesar had, of course, charted much of this course for him, but Augustus’ longevity and success establish him as the greater politician. “Caesar as he had been in life was forgotten. Augustus, the restorer of the republic, was the architect of the new order. Caesarism was not the frank monarchy of Julius. It was still monarchy, but it was veiled now in republicanism—in Catonism, if you like” (Taylor 180).
Aside from this emphasis on moderation, Augustus also recognized the powerful influence of Roman culture (and especially religion) as opposed to relying on mere political power—or worse, the loyalty of the army. Religion in Rome had been connected with the power of the state long before the Edict of Milan. As Taylor states, “The Roman state religion, inseparably bound up with politics, was in the hands of the governing nobles and could be manipulated by them in the interests of the entire body or for the benefit of one group in rivalry with another” (76).
Even before Augustus, Romans understood this integral connection between faith and power: “Both founder-figures of Rome, Aeneas and Romulus, were born of a divinity, both received special attention from the divine during their lifetimes, and both were divinized upon their deaths” (Orlin 75). Augustus, however, took this association to new levels by displacing the Senate as the primary embodiment of religious piety. “Although Augustus would not assume the office of pontifex maximus until 12 B.C.E., the close inter-relationship between religion and politics at Rome ensured that he became the dominant figure in the religious sphere at the same time as he became the dominant political figure” (Orlin 78, emphasis added).
Virgil appears to share this view of the principate by recasting Roman religion on pre-Roman grounds: “Never forget the Latins are Saturn’s people, fair and just, and not because we are bound by curbs or laws, but kept in check of our own accord: the way of our ancient god” (Aeneid 7). For the poet, then, religion becomes at once more ancient and therefore more universal than most Romans of his day conceived it. For this reason, Aeneas is not merely a man of war, but a man of the gods. Sacrificing at his father’s funeral games, he is “bound by custom” and “true to custom,” although the customs here referred to are clearly Greek, rather than Roman (Aeneid 5).
Later, in Book 12, we begin to see why. As Juno withdraws from the battle, she implores her brother-husband, Jupiter, for the sake of Latium, “never command the Latins, on their native soil, to exchange their age-old name, to . . . alter their language, change their style of dress. Let Latium endure. Let Alban kings hold sway for all time. Let Roman stock grow strong with Italian strength” (Aeneid 12). Virgil, as effortless as he is subtle, sheds his ambivalence concerning Caesar and unites the new Rome on the uniquely Augustan pillars of a shared language (Latin), a shared place (Italy), a shared state (monarchy), and a shared descent.
Jupiter’s response is even more telling; he will not only fulfill his sister’s request, he “will add the rites and the forms of worship . . . you will see them outstrip all men, outstrip all gods in reverence. No nation on earth will match the honors” (Aeneid 12). The significance of this statement is almost entirely lost on modern readers. To a Greek, such a statement would seem a mere truism, their religion being centered on the prophecies of oracles and semi-inspired poets such as Homer and Hesiod. To a Roman, however, religion was primarily an act of collective memory, not one of a shared future. And yet, Virgil’s work is nothing if not a contemporaneous history of the Roman civil wars posited as an ancient prophecy. “Virgil thus offers a profoundly different conception of Roman religion in this passage, one that is at sharp odds with the actual history of Roman practice,” which was known for its syncretism (Orlin 74).
The extension of the rites to other Italians is particularly important: Virgil not only ties these rites to the Julian House (and therefore to Augustus), he also widens its appeal and, therefore, Augustus’ religious and political base. “The reader need not assume that the process of amalgamation will be easy, but the poet’s suggestion offers an avenue towards creating unity between Roman and Italian” (Orlin 81). This explains the unqualified acceptance of Aeneas’ Greek rites earlier in the work: “because such practices are not specifically Roman; Greek culture is as much a part of the Italian heritage as the Roman, and more so for some areas of Italy” (Orlin 80).
The success of such an approach could be seen around the city within a generation, as Augustus rebuilt and rededicated all eighty-four of Rome’s existing temples, while also building one for Caesar, thus, both literally and figuratively re-shaping “Roman memory and, in the process,” thereby redefining “what it meant to be Roman” (Orlin 84; see too 85).
In the first century BC, Italians of all stripes had seen their fair share of violence and intrigue as Rome worked out its less than perfect republic. In Augustus, they saw a glimmer of hope, one that would finally end the unceasing strivings of lesser men and unite the peninsula under his leadership. Though Virgil’s comments toward Caesar reveal the poet’s ambivalence toward the statesman, Virgil appears to have no such shortcomings concerning the blessings of Rome’s new Golden Age. For such to be possible, though, Rome had to forget, or at least redefine for herself, who she was. Augustus achieved this feat by reworking Rome’s identity, memory, and self-image—politically, religiously, and historically. And he succeeded in no small part through the aid of Virgil’s pen, and for that reason we and he might both be grateful that after Virgil’s death, Rome’s first prince saved her greatest myth from the ash heaps of history.
Among Ancient Greece’s many important contributions to human knowledge, perhaps none is more apparent than their long and varied experience in the development of political thought. Though these experiences have come down to us as a single tradition, there are in fact at least two sides to this coin. We speak, of course, of Athens and Sparta; the former an older, more cultured and dynamic community, and the latter, of more recent stock, but with an even more traditional form. Though the development of each community is worthy of separate consideration as well, here we will focus on the continuities of Greek political thought and the challenges created by each community’s unique political context.
As we’ve seen before, the Greek concept of the polis was one that emphasized the personal relationships between members of the community in a way that is often foreign to the modern student. “The polis . . . was not simply a set of buildings. It was a community of citizens who shared a range of experiences, in the army, in kinship groups, in age-classes, and marriage alliances” (Freeman 167). The goal of the community was simple: to achieve eunomia or “good order,” which was made possible through the thoughtful legislation and faithful execution of “good laws” (Freeman 170). Though this purpose was inherent to both the Spartan and Athenian forms of government, the cities pursued this order in strikingly different ways.
Athens’ roots are deeper than most other prominent Greek communities. The various Ionian villages of Attica began a process of synoecism (Greek for ‘union of households’) some time in the ninth or eighth centuries before Christ, due to advances in agricultural technology and the resulting increase in population (Martin 71, 82). As Ionians, the Athenians benefitted greatly from their ancestors’ centuries of cultural exchange between the Greeks of modern-day Turkey and the many peoples of the ancient Near East. Because of the shared hardship of the recent Dark Ages and this common cultural identity, Athens developed an early sense of egalitarianism that served as a major force for unity and equality in the community. Though the evidence from this period is admittedly “scarce and obscure,” it “can be interpreted to mean that by the late seventh century B.C., Athens’ male citizens—rich, hoplite-level, and poor alike—had established the first limited form of democratic government” (Martin 83).
The first threat against the good order of the community at Athens came in the form of an attempted coup against their democracy. The perpetrator was Cylon, an Athenian nobleman, former Olympian, and the son-in-law of the reigning tyrant of Megara. The word ‘tyrant’ is thought to be of Lydian origin and may have originally “meant no more than a ruler, but as Greek democracy developed and all forms of one-man rule became abhorrent the Greeks themselves gave the word the connotations that still surround it today” (Freeman 165). The Athenians therefore “rallied ‘from the fields in a body’ (Thucydides 1.126.7) to foil” Cylon’s schemes (Martin 83). After all, in their mind, “It is no polis that is ruled by one man only” (Kitto 71). Later, the threat row tyranny revived when another prominent Athenian named Peisistratus reigned briefly over the city, and was succeeded by his son and grandson before the latter was assassinated (Martin 87).
There were also economic threats to Athens’ eunomia, particularly the consolidation of wealth and property in the hands of increasingly fewer and fewer citizens. As the rich became richer (and fewer) and the poor became poorer (and more numerous), many cried out for greater justice (Greek dike, pronounced dee-kay) in the operations of the community. Justice then, to the Athenian, always maintained an economic connotation. It was this sense of justice that Solon sought to restore with his reforms in the early sixth century B.C. He abolished debt ownership, sought out Athenians who had been sold abroad into slavery and ceased collecting produce taxes. He then opened up government offices fully to those whose land produced “500 or more measures of grain, oil, or wine” and granted partial participation to those who produced at least 200 measures (Freeman 175-176).
Though these property qualifications still excluded many Athenians from holding public office, all citizens were granted membership in the Assembly (Greek ekklesia), while aristocratic influence was codified in the Council (Greek boule), which met atop the Areopagus (Greek ‘Hill of Ares;’ Martin 83, 85-86; see Acts 17:16-34). And later, after the fall of the Peisistratid regime, Cleisthenes used these same reforms as the template for his own program, devising “a system of government based on direct participation by as many adult male citizens as possible” (Martin 88).
Sparta’s origins are similar in sequence to those of Athens but the cities also differed in significant ways. Sparta, too, underwent a process of synoecism but with a strange twist; two communities as opposed to one, gained the ascendency, producing a unique dual monarchy for which Sparta became famous (Martin 71, 73). The Spartans also did not owe their cultural heritage to the Ionians, but the more recently-arrived Dorian Greeks, as is evidenced by both their dialect and their chronic xenophobia (Greek for ‘fear of strangers’; Martin 73).
Because of their later arrival to the Greek world, the Spartans knew they were different. And for this reason, they saw their cultural distinctiveness as both the ends and means of good order. The result was an increasingly militaristic approach in its relations to its immediate Peloponnesian neighbors as well as the Greek world at-large (Freeman 168-169). Later reforms sought to inculcate these martial values into their youth through the state-sponsored education of young boys and girls, pedophilia among the young men, military-style messes for the men, and even officially sanctioned violence against the enslaved Messenians (Freeman 170-172).
Like Athens, however, the Spartans also directed their efforts against the main political threat to eunomia: tyranny. One-man rule seems to have never occurred to the Spartan community. Since its beginnings, two kings had ruled the community and with time the Spartans further limited even these meager powers with the introduction of the Council of Elders (Greek gerousia) and the Assembly of the People (Greek demos), as well as the office of the Overseers (Greek ephoroi; Martin 74). And it was this fear of tyranny that motivated much of Sparta’s policy toward others: assisting Cleisthenes’ overthrow of the Peisistratids in Athens, leading their neighbors in the Greco-Persian wars, and seeking to end Athens’ hegemony by means of the so-called Peloponnesian War (Martin 87, 105, 147-152).
Athens and Sparta therefore shared eunomia as their common goal for their communities and recognized the threat posed by tyranny to this ‘good order.’ Other threats, however, were identified based on the unique experiences of each community in their political thought and practice. Most Athenian reforms sought greater economic justice due to its deeply rooted egalitarianism, while Sparta’s development sought greater military strength in order to preserve their identity in a new cultural context. If we moderns are to learn from the successes (and failures) of these Greek political traditions, we will have to learn what the Greeks themselves struggled with: uniting the twin goals of economic justice and cultural vitality.
The Greeks left a strong foundation of cultural, social, and political values that has been drawn on by almost every Western people since. That being said, the increasingly nationalizing tendencies of our own republican government, and the increasingly international form government is taking in modern Europe, have caused many to wonder why Greece never achieved this same kind of political union. Why remain several small poleis instead of becoming a single great, civilized nation, especially since military threats later absorbed these communities, first into the Macedonian kingdom and later into the Roman Empire?
To answer this question, one must first understand that the Greeks held some drastically different views on the concept of politics than most of us do today. The Greek word polis has no direct English equivalent. Because of this, we have attempted to render it in a number of ways, most commonly as ‘city-state.’ But this not only falls short of the full potential of its meaning, it also introduces some false connotations that were not meant by the Greeks themselves.
Kitto identifies this rendering of the word, “a bad translation, because the normal polis was not much like a city, and was very much more than a state” (64). He goes on to catalogue the various uses of the word in order to demonstrate its many shades of meaning: citadel, town, the market town, people, state, and cultural life (Kitto 68-75). For this reason, Kitto states that polis, “may mean as much as ‘the whole communal life of the people, political, cultural, moral’ – even ‘economic’,” while also retaining certain religious connotations (75). In short then, the polis is the Greek ‘community’ and often serves as a metonymy for the various aspects of the community’s wellbeing.
This more holistic view of ‘the city’ had natural implications for their view of citizenship, which meant much more than mere residence. Many a Greek lived within a city while never enjoying the rights and responsibilities of the citizen. In most Greek communities, citizenship was a birthright bestowed on male children born to a father who was a citizen and a mother who was a free woman. Other members of the community (at least at Athens) included metics (or ‘resident aliens’), women and slaves (owned by individuals in Athens and by the community in Sparta) who each enjoyed limited freedoms but were denied any political participation (Freeman 226-228). As Freeman continues, “Citizenship was thus a privilege and a closely guarded one,” but it also had its duties (228). In Athens a citizen was expected to participate in religious festivals, attend the Assembly, and fight the community’s battles as a hoplite (Freeman 226; Martin 82-83). In Sparta, a citizen was expected to not only fulfill these responsibilities, but also to provide enough food to support his military-style common mess (Greek sussition), and failure to do so meant a loss of membership in both the mess and the citizen body (Martin 77-78).
Taken together, a uniquely Greek concept of political unity begins to take shape. Greeks did not form ‘states;’ they formed ‘communities.’ Citizens were not residents; they were participants in the life and affairs of their community. Note the intimacy implied by the word itself: community. Such a sense is difficult to imagine in today’s modern world (though the same connection can still be seen in our words ‘city’ and ‘citizen’). The United States has over 300 million citizens. Cities have populations numbering in the several hundreds of thousands and even millions.
To the Greeks, however, political unity meant the opportunity to participate in a shared cultural, religious and economic environment. Such is the reason why Plato, when he set forth his vision for the ideal community, set the optimal size of the body politic at 5,000 and why Aristotle believed that “each citizen should be able to know all the others by sight” (though the total population, including women, children, metics, and slaves could approach as many as 50,000; Kitto 65-66). True community, then, is directly proportional to familiarity; the greater the familiarity, the greater the sense of community; and when this familiarity is lost, so is one’s sense of community.
This concept of political unity is further demonstrated by other social relationships enjoyed between citizens. In Athens, the community was not divided into wards, quarters, or boroughs but into demes, a word that simply means ‘peoples’ and implies a sense of common identification among its members (Martin 87-88). Unanimity was further maintained through voluntary associations, “some purely religious,” others related to “particular trades” or aristocratic families, and even through a sundry of rancorous drinking clubs (Freeman 226). As Freeman continues, “The Athenian citizen was thus given identity through a range of shared activities which went well beyond his involvement in the Assembly” (Freeman 226).
And though the Spartans chose activities that appear quite different on the surface (a rigorous martial upbringing, and the above-mentioned common messes) the intent was much the same. However, Spartan unanimity also came at a high moral cost, being reinforced from within through the perversion called pederasty, and from without by the systematic enslavement of their outlying neighbors. It was because of this misplaced emphasis on male unity that the Greeks “created outsiders such as barbarians, both free and slave, and, within the city, women and non-citizens in order to strengthen the identity of the citizen group” (Freeman 226).
Though later in our series we’ll have another opportunity to address Sparta’s neighbors, pederasty deserves special comment before we move on. Pederasty was a form of ritualized pedophilia that typically included a young man as the active partner and a younger boy as the passive one. Though each community had its own twists on this practice, in general the boys “were chosen to be the special favorites of males older than themselves to build bonds of affection, including physical love, for others” (Martin 78, 79). Thankfully, the Apostle Paul condemns the practice, along with other forms of homosexuality, in two ‘vice lists’ in the New Testament (1Co 6:9-11; Rom 1:24-27). So while Greek views on civics are generally ‘higher’ than our own, this was not so in every place on every issue.
To the Greeks, politics meant much more than participating in the political processes of the state; it emphasized the individual civic responsibilities owed to others as a trust and privilege held in common with one’s family and neighbors. It is in this vein of thought that Aristotle states so memorably that, “Man is a political animal,” by which he means that, “‘Man is a creature who lives in a polis’; and what he goes on to demonstrate, in his Politics, is that the polis is the only framework within which man can fully realize his spiritual, moral and intellectual capacities” (Kitto 78). The polis, then, is, in the words of Cartledge, a ‘citizen-state’ (56).
We can hopefully see now why the problem of Greek unity may not be in the Greeks themselves but in the way we have formed our questions concerning the goals of their culture and its effects on their political organization. The Greeks did not ‘succeed’ in the modern conception of ‘political unity’ precisely because it is a modern conception that the Greeks neither imagined nor desired. And though certain Greek views on identity and sexuality fail to measure up to the standard of the biblical witness, we have also failed to live up to their cultural legacy concerning their views on cities and citizenship.
Warfare is a terrible and tragic part of human existence, and the Greeks knew this all too well. Their men fought its battles, their women and children witnessed its horrors in and around their communities, and their leaders struggled with choices between their ultimate aspirations and the pressing challenges of warfare. The Greek way of war therefore demonstrates how Greek culture and society both (1) informed the decisions made during wartime, and (2) were challenged by a proto-utilitarian form of ‘military necessity.’
The first major military threat to the communities of Ancient Greece came in the Greco-Persian Wars. When the Greeks of Ionia (modern-day Turkey) rebelled against the Persian king, they received considerable support from their Greek neighbors to the west. This rebellion failed, however, and the Persians began planning a full-scale invasion of Greece as retribution for their support and participation in the revolts (Martin 99). From the outset, the culture of these two peoples could not have been more different. The Persians viewed individuals as subjects of the state, without value outside the role they fulfilled to the empire and therefore without rights outside those explicitly granted by the government. In contrast to this, the Greek’s maintained a much higher view of the individual, which demanded both the equal protection of laws and shared responsibilities to the community, even though civic participation was limited to free, male citizens.
These differences were further demonstrated by the composition of each army. The Persians marched on Greece as conscripts of a king they had probably never seen (much less met), while the Greeks fought alongside their family and neighbors. And even when a Greek king was present (such as the legendary Leonidas of Sparta) he fought not as their superior but as their peer, as even the Spartan word for a full citizen (homoioi) implies (Martin 77; Cartledge 111-129). Because of this sense of identity, freedom, and community, the behavior of the Greeks during the Persian Wars reflected the very best of human courage in battle. They never forgot that they fought for their wives, children, and homelands, and because of this were motivated to heroic feats of bravery and sacrifice. Even today we draw inspiration from their examples, as is the case with the 300 Spartans and their allies at the pass of Thermopylae (see Pressfield’s historical novel, Gates of Fire, the precursor to the graphic novel and film franchise, 300) and the Greek victory over the Persians at Marathon.
Greek ingenuity was also at its best. While Sparta led the Greeks on land, Athens ultimately led them at sea, producing naval victories that are just as impressive as their victories on land. Most spectacular was the victory at Salamis, where the Athenian commander Themistocles forced the vast Persian fleet into a narrow pass (practically eliminating the Persians’ advantage in numbers), where the Greeks were able to ram the Persian vessels and fight them off ship by ship (Martin 104). The effect of these two Greek victories was both practical and psychological; Xerxes was forced to return with his fleet back to Persia, leaving behind a much weaker ground force under the command of Xerxes’ general, Mardonius, whom the Greeks soon defeated.
War, however, does not always (or even usually) reveal the best parts of a people’s culture. Even in the Persian Wars, leaders were forced to employ no small amount of political creativity to gain the support needed to achieve these victories. These cracks in the unity and character of the Greeks fractured completely a generation later when open war broke out between the two leading communities of Greece: Athens and Sparta. The causes of the Peloponnesian War are still debated, but when ‘entangling alliances’ exacerbate age-old rivalries in trade, political philosophies, and territorial expansion, it does not take an historian to figure out the likely result. This does not mean, however, that war was inevitable or that there were not leaders on both sides of the conflict who spoke against it. And when war was decided, the wisest on both sides sought limited goals and a quick resolution, particularly the Spartan king Archidamus and his Athenian ‘guest-friend’ Pericles (Kagan 1-54).
Thucydides’ record of the Peloponnesian War provides a number of examples of the potential for humans to choose violence, brutality, and cruelty over the more noble behavior we should rightfully expect of one another. Corinth was more concerned about her honor and rights regarding Corcyra and Potidaea than the impact her actions would have on her allies. Sparta also chose the baser side of war in her later treatment of Potidaea. When she captured the community the Spartans put most of the men to death for not being able to affirm that they had “rendered Sparta any service in this war”—a tacit acceptance of Persian utilitarianism foreign to Greek thought up to that point (Kitto 151).
Athens was no more immune to these problems than her enemies. When the island of Lesbos revolted, the Athenians sent a ship to Mitylene, the primary settlement of the Lesbians, with the inhumane task of slaughtering the men and enslaving the women and children. Though they changed their minds and rescinded the order the next day, the second ship only barely prevented the massacre by making port on Lesbos as the first decree was being read to the citizens of the community (Kitto 143-147). Unfortunately, within a decade such moderation was lost completely when Athens killed or enslaved all the residents of the neutral community at Melos (Kitto 151-152).
There was also internal political turmoil caused by war, especially at Athens. In the preceding paragraph, we have already seen that the Athenian assembly was prone to overreaction and hasty decisions, but they had an equally troubling time trusting the decisions of their leadership. One telling sign of this is the frequent removal of Athenian generals (as happened with Thucydides[Kitto 147-148] and Alcibiades [Pressfield’s Tides of War]). Even Pericles himself experienced these vaccinations in public approval, though he had spoken against the war and led a successful defensive strategy of attrition designed to wear down the Spartans to exhaustion (Kitto 141-142). As a result of this turmoil, Athens for a time even established an oligarchic government, though after its brief reign the city gradually restored its well-known democratic form (Kitto 137).
War both manifests and challenges the character and culture of a people. At the outset of war, culture initially informs the purposes and methods of the conflict. But when these purposes and methods are tested by changing circumstances on the ground, such crises often lead not only to a refining of tactics, but also to a challenge to culture itself. The Greeks experienced just such a cultural shock in their wars against enemies from both without and within. The result was a Greek culture that was first defended, then surrendered, and thankfully reasserted for the benefit of all of us who have come along since.
Though a sundry of modern practices have their roots in the ancient Near East, it is the Greeks who absorbed these traditions and made them their own, thereby laying the foundation for Western Civilization. This is particular true in three realms of Greek thought: their uniquely Greek approach to philosophy, the concept of freedom it produced, and the literature that has preserved these thoughts for generations since.
Greek philosophy, like many other things Greek, had its roots in the thought of the ancient Near East, especially in the Ionian areas of modern-day Turkey (this also become the driving thesis of Freeman’s sweeping survey, Egypt, Greece and Rome). There, during Greece’s Archaic Age, Greek thinkers began to recognize the presence of certain laws of nature that seemed uniform and predictable, especially as they concerned the movements of the celestial bodies. Such a view, however, represented a clear departure from the popular beliefs of the day, which held that natural phenomena were the results of the arbitrary will of the divines rather than anything approaching an understandable order and pattern. The result was the recognition of logic (from the Greek word logos or ‘thought,’ ‘study’) as the uniquely human way of solving problems of everyday human life both in nature (as in the example above) as well as in humanity itself (psychologically and socially; see Martin 90-91).
Greek philosophy, however, was not limited to these subjects alone. Later in its development, Socrates introduced a moral aspect to philosophy that gave us another word used often today: ethics. Socrates’ focus was simple; justice was the goal of human existence and because of this, an individual could only be happy by achieving this justice in his own behavior toward others, a state Socrates defined as virtue. For Socrates, then, it was in the individual’s best interest to reflect on his own character, to challenge his assumptions and in doing so, to refine his own sense of right and wrong as he related to those around him. “Moral knowledge was all one needed for the good life, as Socrates defined it” (Martin 170). It was this foundation that was built upon by Socrates’ student Plato, crystallized by Plato’s student Aristotle, and eventually challenged by the later Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans of the Hellenistic Age (Martin 177-185, 212-217). In essence, then, prior to the second century before Christ, the Greeks had undertaken nearly every major issue and approach to human knowledge and happiness.
One major ideal served as both an underlying assumption and an overarching conclusion to such self- and natural examination: the Greek concept of freedom. Today, the word freedom is almost always understood in a political sense, and while such an understanding would concur with ancient Greek thoughts on the subject, the word itself implied much more than simple civil liberty. In a political sense, a Greek used the word simply to mean that “however his polity was governed it respected his rights,” whether he had any say in the matter or not (Kitto 9). “But ‘eleutheria’…was much more than this . . . . Slavery and despotism are things that maim the soul . . . . The Oriental custom of obeisance struck the Greek as not ‘eleutheron’; in his eyes it was an affront to human dignity” (Kitto 10). There was also then a spiritual connotation to the word that tied the welfare of the community inextricably to the welfare of individuals with both physical and spiritual natures. Freedom was not just a political ideal, but an overriding principle that led to a distinctively human way of solving problems rooted in our shared ability to observe and reason based on common human experience.
But for the Greeks, writing was not merely didactic. Instead, their thoughts on natural law, logic, ethics, and freedom, were most often transmitted artistically through literature and drama. As Kitto points out, “That which distils [sic], preserves and then enlarges the experience of a people is Literature” and human society at-large owes a great debt of gratitude to the Greeks in this respect (Kitto 8). Though various forms of poetry existed prior to the rise of Greek literature (religious, romantic, prophetic), the Greeks soon added both epic and lyric poetry to this list.
Epic poetry was especially important in preserving what would otherwise have been lost of Greece’s Mycenaean past on the Eurasian mainland. Homeric poetry mainly discussed the uniquely human value of excellence (Greek arete). The goal of the excellent life, however, was not moral in nature but involved the legacy one would leave behind, what the Greeks called their kleos, or “glorious reputation,” whether on the battlefield, through friendship with strangers (the literal meaning of hospitality), or through victory in the quadrennial Olympic games (Martin 41-46). Mythology also played a prominent role in the shaping of early Greek thought on their existence. The poet Hesiod sought to recast the myths of his forbearers “to reveal the divine origin of justice” as an absolute sense of right and wrong rooted in humanity’s common origins and their shared fate in death (Martin 48).
Lyric poetry came onto the scene much later with a greater emphasis on the musical aspects of poetry, varying the rhythm, including instrumental accompaniment, and being written for performances by choruses which often performed them while dancing rather simply seated or standing (Martin 89). Along with this change in form came a similar change in content, as the Greeks began putting their thoughts on politics and philosophy into writing for the first time, first in lyric poetry and then in prose, an innovation that had not previously been attempted on such a scale by any human society (Martin 90). It can be said with some truth then that most of the genres of literature recognize and work within today were “created and perfected by the Greeks” (Kitto 9).
The Greeks have impacted our collective consciousness in ways both simple and profound. They believed there was something that set us apart from the other creatures with which we share our planet. Because of this, they believed it was perfectly in keeping with their nature to look both internally and externally to explain their material, spiritual, ethical and political existence—all in the name of justice and the achievement of their own earthly happiness. And in doing so, they produced many of the greatest works in human thought. We remain the heirs of the Greeks, then, not because they are more than human but because they are precisely much like ourselves, and because of this, their experiences are ours, their aspirations are ours, and their lessons are for us all.
It may seem strange to discuss the identity of a Persian ruler in a series on the Greeks, but until the late nineteenth century, two Greek historians were our primary witnesses for the fall of Babylon to the Achaemenid (Medo-Persian) Empire in 539 B.C. History can be both enlightening and entertaining in its own right, but it is also instrumental in understanding the world the Bible was written in. Reading ancient historians therefore affords us additional insights to what the Bible says and what the Bible means, and is especially helpful concerning difficult passages of Scripture.
One particular problem they assist with is in determining the identity of the ruler known in the Bible as “Darius the Mede,” and Darius’ role in the Persian conquest of Babylon. In the fifth chapter of the book of Daniel, Daniel has just rebuked Belshazzar (the fifth king after Nebuchadnezzar) for using articles from the Jewish temple to worship “the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know” (Dan 5:23 ESV), and so Daniel interprets to him the (literal!) handwriting on the wall:
“Then from his [God’s] presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
The ESV Study Bible summarizes for us the historical problem posed by the passage:
The identity of Darius the Mede and the exact nature of his relationship to Cyrus is not certain. It is clear that Cyrus was already king of Persia at the time when Babylon fell to the Persians (539 B.C.), and thus far no reference to “Darius the Mede” has been found in the contemporary documents that have survived. (ESVSB on Dan 5:30-31)
Skeptics, of course, have been quick to jump on this unconfirmed claim to question the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture. But judging by other historical sources from the period, the Bible appears to record these events in a very similar manner to other ancient sources. Another contemporary account that provides some additional insight is The Nabonidus Chronicle, which recounts many details from the reign of Belshazzar’s father, Nabonidus (more on this below):
In the month of Tashritu . . . . The 16th day, Gobryas (Ugbaru), the governor of Gutium and the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without battle. Afterwards Nabonidus was arrested in Babylon when he returned (there). Till the end of the month, the shield(-carrying) Gutians were staying within Esagila (but) nobody carried arms in Esagila and its (pertinent) buildings, the correct time (for a ceremony) was not missed. In the month of Arahshamnu, the 3rd day, Cyrus entered Babylon, green twigs were spread in front of him—the state of “Peace” (šulmu) was imposed upon the city. Cyrus sent greetings to all Babylon. Gobryas, his governor, installed (sub-)governors in Babylon. (ANET 306-7, Pritchard 281-282)
Less than one hundred years later, Herodotus records an expanded account of the conquest in book one of The Histories (190-191 in my Penguin edition):
The Babylonians had taken the field and were awaiting his [Cyrus’] approach. When he arrived near the city they attacked him, but were defeated and forced to retire inside their defences . . . and as they had taken the precaution of accumulating in Babylon a stock of provisions sufficient to last many years, they were able to regard the prospect of a siege with indifference. The siege dragged on, no progress was made, and Cyrus was beginning to despair of success. Then somebody suggested or he himself thought up the following plan: he stationed part of his force at the point where the Euphrates flows into the city and another contingent at the opposite end where it flows out, with orders to both to force an entrance along the riverbed as soon as they saw that the water was shallow enough. Then, taking with him all his non-combatant troops, he withdrew to the spot where Nitocris had excavated the lake, and proceeded to repeat the operation which the queen had previously performed: by means of a cutting he diverted the river into the lake (which was then a marsh) and in this way so greatly reduced the depth of water in the actual bed of the river that it became fordable, and the Persian army, which had been left at Babylon for the purpose, entered the river, now only deep enough to reach about the middle of a man’s thigh, and, making their way along it, got into the town. If the Babylonians had learnt what Cyrus was doing or had seen it for themselves in time, they could have let the Persians enter and then, by shutting all the gates which led to the waterside and manning the walls on either side of the river, they could have caught them in a trap and wiped them out. But as it was they were taken by surprise. The Babylonians themselves say that owing to the great size of the city the outskirts were captured without the people in the centre knowing anything about it; there was a festival going on, and they continued to dance and enjoy themselves, until they learned the news the hard way. That, then, is the story of the first capture of Babylon.
One final account is also worth mentioning, from Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. Xenophon was born around the time Herodotus died, and is thus even further removed from the events he described, but his account also supports some of the claims made by our earlier sources. We will pick up his account (which I have greatly abbreviated), with the decision to divert the river:
Thereupon Cyrus took his measurements all round the city, and, leaving a space on either bank of the river large enough for a lofty tower, he had a gigantic trench dug from end to end of the wall, his men heaping up the earth on their own side. . . . [When] the trenches were dug . . . Cyrus heard that it was a time of high festival in Babylon when the citizens drink and make merry the whole night long. As soon as the darkness fell, he set his men to work. The mouths of the trenches were opened, and during the night the water poured in, so that the river-bed formed a highway into the heart of the town.
You really should read the whole thing, which makes for great reading, if not good history (in fact, Ridley Scott could have learned a thing or two). But the parallels between these four accounts are unmistakable. The king of Babylon at this time is actually Nabonidus himself. He had usurped the throne seventeen years earlier, but had since retired into Arabia, leaving Belshazzar as regent of Babylon in his stead (perhaps explaining why the prince, as Number Two, could only make Daniel, “the third ruler in the kingdom”). Cyrus and his allies then approached from the north and northwest, respectively.
As is indicated in Herodotus and Nabonidus, the combat troops at Babylon appear to be under the command of Gobryas/Ugbaru, an old ally of Cyrus’, leading the breach of the city during the ceremonial festival hosted by Belshazzar. Cyrus himself arrived at the city several days later, incorporating Babylonia into the empire, and rewarding Ugbaru with the governorship of the region. Ugbaru then conducted further reforms, including the appointment of lieutenants throughout the city. The biggest differences are that Nabonidus makes no mention of the river works, Herodotus makes no mention of Ubgaru, and Xenophon makes Cyrus the primary actor throughout.
Which brings us back to our original question: who is “Darius the Mede,” and how does he fit into this picture? In the same paragraph cited above, The ESV Study Bible summarizes the three most common solutions proposed by biblical scholars:
. . . thus far no reference to “Darius the Mede” has been found in the contemporary documents that have survived.  That absence, however, does not prove that the references to Darius in the book of Daniel are a historical anachronism. The book of Daniel recognizes that Cyrus reigned shortly after the fall of Babylon (1:1; 6:28), and knowledge of the history of this period, while substantial, may be incomplete. Until fairly recently there was no cuneiform evidence to prove the existence of Belshazzar either.  Some commentators argue that Darius was a Babylonian throne name adopted by Cyrus himself. On this view, 6:28 should be understood as, “during the reign of Darius the Mede, that is, the reign of Cyrus the Persian.”  Others suggest that Darius was actually Cyrus’s general, elsewhere named Gubaru or Ugbaru, and credited in the Nabonidus Chronicle with the capture of Babylon. (ESVSB on Dan 5:30-31)
The first response is a general truth that applies to any aspect of biblical history: history cannot prove a biblical statement to be false due to a lack of evidence, and Christians should not withhold their assent to a biblical statement simply because of a lack of historical confirmation. But this should also not be seen as an excuse for not engaging with known historical sources, or to simply win arguments or silence debate (all of which applies equally well to contemporary discussions on faith and science). The second theory is certainly possible in a strictly grammatical way, but this construction seems forced, and receives little attention from Bible translators.
The most likely explanation of our known sources, then, is that Darius is the name chosen by the biblical writer to refer to the Gobryas/Ugbaru/Gubaru mentioned in our sources. This fits especially well with the wording seen in Daniel: Darius “received the kingdom” and “was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans,” implying that his authority was derived from a superior (such as Cyrus; Dan 5:30-31; 9:1, emphases added; see 6:28). There are also parallels between the reforms attributed to Darius/Ugbaru, such as the appointment of satraps/sub-governors throughout the realm. So while historians now doubt aspects of the historical accounts (most notably, the diversion of the river; see below, Note 1), these accounts also provide important contextual information supporting the biblical account in the book of Daniel.
On the other hand, we must also point out that the Bible does not necessarily require us to believe that Darius the Mede and Ugbaru are the same person; this is simply the best inference we can make given our current understanding of the biblical text and the history surrounding it. So while we may not be able to state absolutely who Darius is, we can certainly assent with his testimony, as recorded in Scripture:
Peace be multiplied to you. I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end. He delivers and rescues; he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, he who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions. (Dan 6:25-27)
Note 1: Such as Marincola in note 80 to The Histories. In the same place he also states, “it is clear that there was treachery, perhaps because of the discontent aroused by Nabonidus, particularly towards the priestly caste who may thus have welcomed Cyrus. It is likely too that the large Jewish community at Babylon assisted Cyrus’ entry into the city; after its fall Cyrus returned the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem, with orders for the temple there to be rebuilt (Ezra 6.3-22).” This, however, appears to be mere supposition.
As I wrapped up my undergrad studies and first looked into graduate school, the first major that caught my eye was an MA in Ancient and Classical History. After two classes, however (one in historiography and the other in the Ancient Greeks), I quickly discovered that while the historical fascinated me, my interests were entirely too broad to be limited to the study of what once was.
History, however, remains an essential part of the humanities, and any approach to liberal learning must maintain an essentially historical approach. History helps us answer questions like, Where did we come from? What does it mean to be human? What was the “state of nature”? What brought about the rise of civilization? How does this affect our understanding of social and political community today? And on what basis can we determine right and wrong?
History is therefore the foundation of anthropology, sociology, civics, economics, and ethics. As Solomon once mused, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us” (Ecc 1:9-10 ESV). Understanding where we have come from is thus fundamental to understanding who we are, and where we are heading as a society.
By studying history, then, we develop skills of historical, literary, and philosophical reasoning that provide us an opportunity to better understand and orient our own lives today. In other words, perhaps the best way to understand history is not as what once was, but as what could be again.
But thinking historically is sometimes easier said than done. As David Hackett Fischer points out, historians must recognize and work within the inherent “logic of historical thought.” This does not imply that humans always make sense (far from it!), nor does it mean that historians are always consistent in their approach to understanding the past. What it does mean is that history, like any academic discipline, requires a clear and consistent understanding of its own internal workings. The very meaning of “history” implies that such must be the case.
Our word history is transliterated from the Greek word historiai, which means “investigations” (NIV 1283). This explains Fischer’s assertion that, “History is, in short, a problem-solving discipline,” which requires (1) “open-ended question[s] about past events,” (2) “a true descriptive statement about past events,” and (3) “an interactive structure of workable questions and factual statements” making sense of these past events (Fischer xv). Just as a scientist or detective gathers as much evidence as possible and allows that evidence to lead to her conclusions, the historian is primarily an investigator, meaning that conclusions must follow the evidence instead of preceding it.
Perhaps the greatest roadblock to understanding history, however, is the preconceptions, assumptions, and biases we bring to our study. Many frame the discussion by stating that we shouldn’t bring our worldview to bear on history, but it would be impossible for us not to. Instead, we must also work tirelessly to recognize and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the historian himself, both as a student of history examining the evidence and as a teacher who is presenting his case. This does not make history subjective; it merely recognizes what it takes to maintain objectivity in light of evidence.
Another way to state this goal is that the historian seeks fairness or (stated negatively) avoids bias. As McCullagh states, bias can be mitigated if properly defined and understood by recognizing our own limitations and desires. “To be fair, a description must describe all the predominant features of the chosen aspect of the subject, so that the description is not at all misleading” (McCullagh 42). Bias, on the other hand, occurs when “failures in historical inference, in historical description and interpretation, and in historical explanation” occur “because the historian wants the outcome she has produced” (McCullagh 40, emphasis added).
Such biases are manifest in virtually every stage of historical study. As Hackett discusses in his own work, historians make three basic types of fallacies: in inquiry (question-framing, factual verification, factual significance), explanation (generalization, narration, causation, motivation, composition, false analogy), and argument (semantical distortion and substantive distraction).
McCullagh focuses on four of these: “First, historians sometimes misinterpret evidence, so that they are not justified in asserting that the inferences about what happened in the past are true” (40). Similarly, in their explanations of historical events, historians occasionally “omit important features of their subject” and therefore lead the reader to believe he is reading a more complete account than what is actually presented (McCullagh 45). Others mislead readers by making implications that do not stand up in light of known evidence, thereby denying the reader a justifiable interpretation that reconciles the preponderance of known facts (McCullagh 48). Causal explanations can also fall short of “fair” by removing from consideration possible causes that are no less significant than those favored by the historian’s own interests.
The key to avoiding each of these biases is to ensure the breadth of an account is commensurate with the depth of detail provided on the subject, all of which must closely follow the evidence. “If the evidence is extensive and varied, and one explanation of what happened is far superior to any other, then historians quite rationally judge it likely to be true” (McCullagh 60). It is because of this that, “Historians prefer those [interpretations] which give meaning to a large number of facts about [a particular] subject, and which make their occurrence intelligible” (McCullagh 48). This does not mean, however, that sources should be trusted implicitly. Instead, “historians interpret documents by constructing the best available explanation for whole groups of reports and evidence about the events they study,” thereby maintaining a stronger sense of perspective in their conclusions (McCullagh 61, emphasis added).
Any approach to history, then, must be clear, consistent, and evidentiary in focus. Though at times our own biases remain undetected due to our own personal and cultural perspectives, this does not mean they are inevitable or insurmountable hurdles to a reasonable historiography. Instead, our biases may be raised to a level of awareness that allows the historian to recognize and critically assess the flaws in his own methodology in order to more consistently operate within the “logic of historical thought.” For history to be fair then, an historian must maintain “a commitment to standards of rational inquiry which is stronger than one’s commitment to a certain outcome” (McCullagh 55). Quite simply, to think historically begins by simply following the evidence.
Einstein’s example also demonstrates how this religious appreciation of mystery can inform scientific endeavors, that is, when exercised with caution. The first lesson to learn from Einstein’s example is a positive one: lowliness of mind precedes greatness of thought. He reminds us that while observation is key to a complete understanding, observation alone cannot answer the greatest questions posed by the natural world.
As Kuhn later discussed, each form of measurement is developed within (and therefore influenced by) a certain system of previous findings, assumptions, and so on. So while the scientist may accurately describe his observations within the framework of his own spatial and chronological position in the universe, such observations may not hold true if seen from another vantage point (Einstein, Foundation 1201-1203). In a more general sense, then, the goal of a scientist is not merely to describe his observations and formulate his theories from his own perspective, but to state (or restate) natural laws in a way that makes them universally applicable, regardless of variables in space and time (Einstein, Foundation 1203-1206). This is, in a nutshell, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Though such a claim is bold, Einstein succeeds by the force of his own humility as well as the simple beauty of his geometry (Einstein, Foundation 1237). What is perhaps even more impressive, though, is that he admits toward the end of his work that while his theory is surely correct (humility, after all, does not mean assuming you are wrong) it requires further astronomical and gravitational observations in order to be fully vetted (Einstein, Cosmological 1257-1258). Thus Einstein’s work combined an appreciation for the beauty and simplicity of good math with “the humble recognition that the ultimate word in science belongs to the facts, that is, to the observational verification of theories” (Jaki 36).
At its best, then, science is a continuing conversation on the cosmos that depends upon both personal humility and the willingness to accept that even the best theories are only potentialities in the absence of further verification. So while the universe will be and do what the universe is and does, the scientist must be ever mindful of his own finite nature and remember that his perspective is not the only valid vantage point. Einstein’s theory of relativity thus removes the self from the center of science, just as Copernicus moved the earth from the center of the universe. Humility, then, is the chief virtue for both the saint and the scientist, and begins to explain why scientists need something like methodological naturalism. Quite simply: scientists seek a comprehensive understanding of nature that is held accountable to the facts of nature itself.
But there is another side to this methodological naturalism that Einstein had more trouble with, which brings us to the second lesson we learn from his sense of mystery. While Einstein is still popularly regarded as the world’s favorite scientist, many within the scientific community have questioned his genius (even in his own time) due to his rejection of modern quantum theory. Though Einstein had several reasons for this rejection, the chief of these was that “it was probabilistic” (see Natarajan 660). At the core of this theory is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that, “The more precisely the position of something is defined, the less precisely its speed can be defined, and vice versa” (Hawking). So while we can measure the position and speed of an object with a fair degree of accuracy, we cannot always measure both at the same time, especially in situations where the very tools we use to measure can affect the outcome of the measurement.
Rarely does this principle affect us on a day-to-day basis, where approximation reigns, but on the micro level in a laboratory or the macro level in the heavens, such approximation must be recognized and understood before making far-reaching conclusions. Newtonian physics, though, did not understand this and therefore believed humanity capable of perfectly knowing the natural world. Coupled with the existence of immutable natural laws, Newtonian physics led to a worldview (modernism) in which certainty was not only possible in the present, but also in the past and future. If we know where an object is now and what rules govern its behavior, it was thought, we can find out where it was and where it is going.
In quantum theory, however, such is simply not the case: “The Uncertainty Principle . . . implies that even if one had all the information there is to be had about a physical system, its future behavior cannot be predicted exactly, only probabilistically” (Barr, Faith). Or as we have stated before, precision does not eliminate mystery—mystery moves in and around it.
Einstein’s rejection of quantum theory, however, was not due as much to its lack of mathematical or explanatory power (since it had both on its side), as to his own commitment to absolute determinism. As (in my view) a deist, “Einstein denounced positivism, endorsed a realist metaphysics [what you see is what you get], and professed his belief in the objectivity of physical reality” (Jaki 30). In fact, it was in part because of this pre-commitment to determinism that he could not bring himself to believe in a personal God:
If this Being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an Almighty Being? In giving out punishments and rewards he would to a certain extent be passing judgement on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to him? (Einstein, quoted in Brooke 946)
In other words, if all power belongs to God, then all we see happening around us is His work, everything good and everything evil. To Einstein, then, a personal God is either all-powerful or all-goodness, but cannot be both, and a God without all power is no God at all. Einstein therefore chose to believe in a non-personal, all-powerful God who knew and worked all things.
So while in theory he understood that individuals only possess a relative, partial view of the cosmos, he failed to realize that his own reliance on a “model of reality which shall represent events themselves” rather than probabilities, was itself the product of an isolated, dogmatic individualism rooted in post-Enlightenment rationalism (Brooke 950). Quantum theory, however, though silent on determinism per se, threatened to discredit both his personal and professional views on the subject. If precise measurement and understanding is unlikely, it required a modification of Newtonian science and Einstein’s own deistic interpretation of the world’s predictability. And though no quantum physicist would deny the knowability or predictability of science, Einstein simply could not bring himself to accept even this qualified approach to the world.
In other words, although Einstein’s general theory of relativity challenged Newton’s concept of time, Einstein dismissed these implications in order to maintain his own conception of God as an impersonal, self-sustaining and all-powerful being par excellence. As Barr points out, if true, quantum theory would be of the greatest “philosophical and theological importance” in that, “It would spell the doom of determinism” and eventually bring an end to purely materialist conceptions of human thought and action (Barr, Faith).
So while mystery was of utmost importance to the direction of Einstein’s thought, it points us to some very un-Einsteinian conclusions: “that the traditional Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory . . . makes the most sense” and that its logical end may very well be the end of “physical determinism” and a renewed appreciation for the “special ontological status” of “the mind of the human observer” (Barr, Faith). So while the universe is self-evidently ordered, it is also dynamic—and therefore so is our understanding of the universe.
We conclude, then, with two observations about what Einstein’s example means for us today. First, science and religion have nothing to fear from one another when methodological naturalism is understood as the way scientists make authoritative claims about nature. On the side of science, this means science is accountable to what nature itself teaches, and we have nothing to fear from what they find there. On the side of faith, it also means that while we often want science to say something more than it does or even something different, that too will require additional research and verification. Einstein understood the first lesson well, but his incorrect views on God led him to reject the more accurate perspective provided by quantum theory, and we should learn from his example in both cases.
Good science and its inbuilt sense of mystery point to the rationality of faith, and our faith can and should inspire our views of nature, but where faith and science appear to disagree we should carefully examine the evidence on both sides to ensure we stand on the side of truth and the God who is truth. So whether we are studying the laws of nature or nature’s God, we ought to be continually impressed with the order of our world, the strong sense of mystery that surrounds it, and the unimaginable fortune we have in being part of it all. Einstein, of course, falls short of a fully Christian view of God or faith, but the mystery he discovered in nature points beyond the merely unknowable to the One whose wisdom and knowledge surpass all depths; whose judgments are unsearchable and whose ways are past finding out (Rom 11:33).
Albert Einstein is the quintessential scientist, at least in the eyes of most scientific laymen. We continue to be impressed with the sheer brilliance and originality of his work, while at the same time reminding ourselves that in the end he was just another guy who could care less about his reflection in the mirror. For those of us outside scientific circles, we remember him primarily for his famous equation, E=mc2, but the deeper we dig, we realize that this is only a glimpse at the depth of his thought, and not even the labor of love that won him his Nobel Prize in Physics. And for all these reasons (and others) we feel drawn to him both as an individual and as a thinker.
Of particular interest to many of Einstein’s students are his views on God, religion, and the relationship these maintain with the natural world and our study of it. Unfortunately, as with most treatments of another’s faith, specific interpretations reveal as much about us as they do about the thinker in question. More often than not, Einstein is painted as a militant atheist who disdained faith and preferred instead the certainty of cold, hard facts, and many would prefer us to maintain this view. As one writer points out, Einstein referred to the idea of a personal God as “an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously” (quoted in Brooke 946). And in a letter Einstein wrote a year before his death, he “described belief in God as ‘childish superstition,’ and ridiculed the belief that Jews are ‘the chosen people,’” a claim that as an ethnic Jew he had heard throughout his life (quoted in Natarajan 661).
So, according to this view, while some have sought to prove Einstein’s belief, “Nothing could be further from the truth; indeed, Einstein can be described more accurately as an outright atheist” (Natarajan 655). So while Einstein used the words ‘God’ and ‘religion’ frequently, he did so as a conventional way to express the orderliness of nature. So when he says things like, “God does not play dice” or “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” we should not read these as confessions of faith.
Yet Einstein’s own statements concerning atheism and revealed religion seem to militate against this dominant narrative. In his writings he refers to “fanatical atheists” as “slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle . . . who—in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’—cannot hear the music of the spheres” (Einstein, quoted in Rose). Though Einstein certainly had reservations about what he viewed as the mythical elements in revealed religion, it was not a wholesale rejection. So while he could never bring himself to see revelation as the antidote to “intellectual ignorance” (Bussey 20), he was not unimpressed with biblical ethics, as he himself pointed out: “If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus Christ taught it of all subsequent additions . . . one is left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity” (Einstein, quoted in Brooke 952).
Thus while it is important to remember his “dismissal of religion and of a belief in a personal God,” we should also recognize that this is not the whole story (Jaki 31). In fact, though Einstein did not refer to himself as a theist, he did think of himself as religious in his own way, identifying with the views of Spinoza: “admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly” (Brooke 947). He even described this admiration as a “cosmic religious feeling,” which served as the primary inspiration and motivation for doing good science (Brooke 948).
Einstein began working this out in what became the special theory of relativity, which taught him to look for the order behind the seemingly random phenomena he studied. Taken together, these efforts taught him to see the universe as a unified whole accessible through theories that connected as many ‘dots’ in our understanding as possible, and which led ultimately to his work in unified field theory (Brooke 950). And so, as he expanded relativity to the more general form we recognize today, he developed a vision of the cosmos, “fully coherent, unified and simple, existing independently of the observer, that is, not relative to him, and yielding its secrets in the measure in which the mathematical formulae through which it was investigated, embodied unifying power and simplicity” (Jaki 33). In other words, though our perceptions of nature are relative, nature itself is not, and is accessible through sound reasoning and good math.
To Einstein, then, science was more than pure rationalism; his childlike sense of awe led him to value “the role of aesthetic judgment in the evaluation of scientific theories”—quite simply, if a view seemed ugly or quirky, it didn’t pass muster (Brooke 950). As even his more dogmatic disciples concur, then, Einstein “saw the hand of God in the precise nature of physical laws, in their mathematical beauty and elegance, and in their simplicity” and took our recognition of such laws as “evidence of a God, not a God who superseded these laws but one who created them” (Natarajan 656).
And in this regard, Einstein found himself in good company, following in the footsteps of others, “such as Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, and Newton, who were devoutly religious and saw themselves as uncovering these ordinances of divine reason” (though Einstein and Newton were by no means orthodox Christians; Barr, “God”). Einstein, then, was not an atheist (God certainly exists), a theist (he did not see Him as a personal being), or an agnostic (His laws imply His existence), but a deist (witnessing design but denying revelation and divine intervention). To Einstein religion was not ruled out, but was interpreted as a sense of awe in the face of the natural order rather than a personal relationship with a personal deity.
Understanding Einstein’s deistic views raises two important questions. First, can religious faith coexist with rational science? And, if so, how does a faith in God inform our efforts to seek natural causes for natural phenomenon—what scientists refer to as methodological naturalism? Einstein’s example is instructive in both cases, and relies on an appreciation of the concept of mystery. In an age dominated by various forms of rationalism, this is not a word that we use frequently, much less take seriously. To our modern minds, mystery is merely a synonym for ignorance, stupidity or irrationality. We live in a world that denies any “reliance on intuition, tradition, faith, authority or mystery,” and especially when these are informed by religion (Bussey 8). Thus mystery is viewed as manifestly ridiculous. But this may say more about the modern conception of reason than anything else.
Our modern view of things misses an important distinction: ignorance “is an absence of knowledge where knowledge can in principle be obtained,” while mystery (rightly understood) refers to “something that is not amenable to intellectual knowledge or is inexpressible in words” (Bussey 3). This means that one is ignorant when one doesn’t know but can, while a mystery is not merely unknown but unknowable. Mystery affects us in two very similar but nonetheless distinct ways. In the course of our everyday lives we are forever experiencing new things, and though they occasionally amaze us, we do not seek to understand them. This weaker, ordinary sense of mystery may interest us for a time, but our mind soon moves on to other things.
Yet the strong (one may even say transcendent) sense of mystery is much more than this. It is not merely interested in a new phenomenon, but brings us to question how it works. “Overall, one might say that strong mystery tends to lie ‘beyond’ our rational understandings, while everyday mystery lies in and around them, although the two categories are not completely separate” (Bussey 7). It is not what we know that motivates us, but what we don’t. “Mystery is not opposed to reason and should not be despised as ‘unreason’. It extends beyond and around human reason” (Bussey 10). So while the realm of ignorance shrinks by increases in knowledge, each new discovery poses as many questions as it answers. Discovery does not destroy mystery; discovery requires it and deepens it.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is that it is this ‘strong’ sense in which Einstein understood and employed the word:
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science . . . . A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. (Einstein in Bussey 4)
Natural beauty and understanding are therefore integrally connected both with one another and the personal wonder we experience as participants in them. “Like all other aspects of the created order, laws of nature are capable of evoking wonder and a sense of mystery, while being at the same time supremely rational” (Bussey 20).
While this in and of itself is probably not difficult to accept, Einstein goes further: human thought (including science itself) is impossible without this strong sense of mystery. So while our potential for knowledge is ever-increasing due to progress in both technology and observation, the likelihood of figuring it all it out remains slim. We simply don’t know what we don’t know; and the more we discover, the more we realize how much we don’t know. Even more discomfiting for many, is that Einstein identifies this as “the truly religious attitude,” and claims it as his own.
When one speaks of the supernatural these days, he is bound to get one of three reactions: skepticism, shock, or scoffing. The skeptic points to the supremacy of reason and science and is dismayed that anyone still believes in all that other stuff. Meanwhile, the shocked (after recovering her breath) asks with a hint of fear, “Do you think they really exist?” And the scoffer (whom we encounter more often than not these days) merely chuckles and shakes his head.
And these responses are not limited to those outside the Christian faith. Many otherwise Bible-believing, church-going folk simply don’t think much about the supernatural. So when we come across passages like Deuteronomy 18 (and even that means getting past Leviticus and Numbers), we really don’t know what to make of it:
When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the LORD your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this. (Deu 18:9-14 ESV)
If I were to teach through this passage on a Sunday morning, I can only begin to imagine the litany of questions: Do the stars know the future? Are we able to understand what they tell us? Does God give us other signs outside of Scripture that reveal his will for us? Does magic exist, and if so, what is the power behind it? Are the dead able to communicate with the living, perhaps even being visible to them?
This, too, would only be the beginning. Since Israel’s day the number of issues relating to the world of spirits has only grown: Are miracles possible? Can man initiate them? What about angels and demons (and possessions and exorcisms)? Or about shapeshifting, vampires, ghosts, poltergeists, or hauntings (all of which I hope to address in the coming weeks)? Both the increasing influence of spiritual beliefs in the modern world (especially in the Global South, postmodernism and Pentecostalism) and the broader world of pop culture (The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and Twilight) point to the persistence of the spiritual in the human imagination.
But there is also a word of caution. What C.S. Lewis once wrote about demons could easily be expanded to other aspects of our discussion: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight” (Screwtape ix). Or as Chesterton once wrote, “It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own” (103). To understand the supernatural, then, we must strike a biblical balance between the unbiblical extremes of blind faith and rationalistic materialism so common in our age.
The first step toward maintaining this balance comes by immersing ourselves in the literary, historical and theological context of the Bible. The task will be difficult, but as Oden points out, it is only when we step out of our modern mindset and into the biblical world that we begin to transform our own view of things into God’s—to adopt God’s worldview (Rom 12:1-2). Oden continues,
Christianity has passed through many worldviews. It still requires some empathic effort for the modern worldview to enter into the worldview of those who make known to us the revelation of God that both transcends and penetrates all particular worldviews. Even within the frame of contemporary scientific worldviews . . . it is hardly reasonable to rule out superpersonal intelligences in this vast cosmos that we still know so incompletely. (1.6.2)
This sort of contextualization will also involve changing our ideas on what reason is and what it means to be reasonable. Chesterton points out that there are really two types of insanity: “The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else . . . . have both locked themselves up . . . they are both unable to get out, the one into the health and happiness of heaven, the other even to the health and happiness of earth” (Chesterton 22). We must retrain ourselves, then, to open our eyes to the rationality of faith evident in the very words of God himself (Heb 11:1; Isa 6:9-10). So here is what we hope to discuss in the coming weeks:
But since it will take us quite some time to work out all these issues, I want to give you the key to these mysteries upfront. In fact, it is the very same key Moses gave in Deuteronomy 18: “And the LORD said to me, ‘ . . . I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him’” (Deu 18:17-19). Centuries later, Peter tells us that this prophet is not merely the human successor of Moses, but “the Holy and Righteous One,” the very “Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:14-23).
The key to understanding mysteries of the supernatural, then, is the resurrected Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. In him, all mysteries are revealed (Rom 16:25; Luke 8:10), that we might understand the eternal plan of God made known through his apostles, to equip us for the spiritual battles to come (Eph 1:9; 3:3-4, 9; 5:32; 6:19). This is, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints,” “the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:26-27, emphasis added). The only way to examine these subjects fully and in the right perspective, is to address these subjects from the foot of the cross, where the mysteries that surround the supernatural fade away in the vibrant glory of the Son of God. And, Lord willing, we’ll begin that journey together next week.
Few authors are surrounded in so great a cloud of reverence and doubt as that of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In fact, it is probably safe to say that aside from the Biblical writers no other author is placed under greater scrutiny or on a higher pedestal. Many of these questions revolve around the identity of Homer and the degree to which these works might be attributed to his own imagination. In past generations, we would have viewed the most fundamental question as whether Homer even existed, or whether he was instead invented by later poets (such as, the Homeridae) to serve as an archetype for themselves and their work.
In recent years, however, the emphasis has shifted away from the question of organic unity and authorship and more to the biographical details of the author and the dating of his works. Though literary and historical sources concerning Homer remain scant, much of the evidence, combined with new insights regarding the origin of written Greek, make a compelling case for the historic Homer and the traditional mid-eighth century date for the writing of The Iliad and The Odyssey. We will deal in turn, then, with three aspects of Homer’s life: his hometown, the broader historical context in which he worked, and the role he played in the final form of his texts.
Concerning the hometown of Homer much may be said, but, “The large island city of Chios has a claim better than most” (Cartledge 41). As Cartledge goes on to state on the same page, Thucydides finds literary evidence as early as the fifth century pointing to the belief that “the blind man of Chios” in a portion of an ancient hymn to Apollo refers to Homer. One must also consider the seventh-century poet Semonides’ reference to Homer as “the man of Chios” and Ephorus’ belief that Homer lived in a small village called Bolissus (or Volissos) located on the island (Grant 139). Such a fact would also explain the location on Chios of the Homeridae, a group of poets who were “devoted to reciting his poetry” and “claimed to have originated from his descendants” (Grant 139).
Though it is reasonable to conclude from these references that Homer did most, if not all, of his writing from Chios, these facts do not make it necessary for us to conclude that this was also the writer’s birthplace. The contradictory claims of Homer’s hometown may indeed be rooted in a simple misunderstanding of one’s “hometown.” Consider, for example, a modern parallel known all-too-well by families serving in ministry or the military, the simple question: Where are you from? This could mean where you were born, where you were raised, where you entered into the service/ministry, where you currently vote, or the place of your most recent work.
With this thought in mind, Grant sets out to reconcile two traditional claims for Homer’s hometown: “despite the contradictory and fragmentary nature of our sources . . . it seems probable that, although he might have been born at Smyrna, he lived and worked in Chios” (Grant 139). So, though Homer was born in the Ionian town of Smyrna, he quite possibly participated in a two century-old immigration pattern from the mainland of Greece onto the island, and became more associated with his adopted home there (see Grant 140). What makes this conclusion even more interesting is the meaning of the writer’s name. Homer (Greek Homeros) literally means “hostage” and could refer to how the writer made that passage as well as his vocation upon his arrival. The poet may even have a cameo (or two, see below) in his work in the form of Odysseus’ swineherd, who was taken from his home at an early age and sold into slavery later in Ithaca (Od. XVII). Such a personal history also fits well with what we know of the eighth century BC (for which, see below).
More significant than this, however (and more readily conceded by most scholars), are the early influences that Homer likely employed to complete his works. Though the influence of specific works is still debated, there is general agreement that The Iliad and The Odyssey are the product of a long oral tradition, stemming primarily from the events of the historical Trojan War. As Grant explains:
During the intervening centuries, the bards who gave performances had been illiterate, but the vanished songs that they sang had been orally transmitted from one generation to another. They no doubt included numerous recurrent formulas which served as mnemonic guides and landmarks to help the impromptu singers; and such formulas . . . continued to abound in the Iliad and Odyssey. Indeed, their 28,000 lines include 25,000 of these repetitive formulaic units. (Grant 140)
As Bertonneau points out, however, it is also important to recognize the apparent chronological gap between the Trojan War itself and when they were recorded by Homer: “While Homer’s poems were, after centuries of oral transmission, written down, thereby becoming the foundation of Western literature, they depict bronze-age types, and indeed an entire ethos, which predate literacy and are defined by the hallmarks of an oral society” (Bertonneau 4). Our question then becomes, why did Greek epic wait until then to take the form of written poetry?
A number of factors may be cited here as contributing to what many scholars now regard as “the Greek Renaissance” that began in the ninth century BC (Cartledge 44). Around the turn of the century, “the Aegean Greek world experienced a general economic, social, and cultural renewal,” that consisted of more than mere trading contacts and increased prosperity, but also a revival in the written word (Cartledge 44). The most significant impetus for these changes was the steady and sustained contact between the Greeks and Eastern civilizations after the end of the Mycenaean Age. As a result of the Assyrian conquest of Syria and Phoenicia, the Phoenicians expanded westward throughout the Mediterranean, settling in places such as Cyprus and Crete (see Teodorsson 166).
Such increased contact led to two further developments in the Greek mind: a yearning for the glory of the ancient days (when the Mycenaeans bested the Easterners at Troy) and the simplicity and practicality of the Phoenician alphabet. So as the Greeks noticed “several [Eastern] resemblances to their own epics . . . their renewed feeling of national strength enhanced their self-assertion,” thus reviving interest in their ancient oral traditions (Teodorsson 174). Thus, while the Greeks shamelessly borrowed the Eastern alphabet, poetic techniques (such as the dactylic hexameter), and various mythological and religious expressions, they “reshaped the material according to the forms of their own culture;” a culture that in their eyes was uniquely Greek, rather than Eastern (Teodorsson 167).
Though the facts of this period are generally accepted, scholars are still divided as to the primary reason the Greeks adopted such an alphabet. The dominant view is that, “Euboean merchants carrying on commercial interchange with Phoenician colleagues in Cyprus” learned the Phoenician alphabet to facilitate their trade, and eventually “decided to use it for writing Greek,” and so the purpose of the Greek alphabet was “solely commercial” (Teodorsson 172).
Bertonneau, however, points to previous work by Powell and Wade-Gery, in an attempt to reverse the conventional understanding of literature’s relationship to the alphabet: Homer’s works were not successful because of the Greek alphabet, but instead, the alphabet was invented “to commit to a settled form . . . the Iliad and Odyssey” (Bertonneau 1). He points out that the vast majority of extant texts from the period are literary, rather than commercial, and that even today the Greeks are looked to not for their business sense, but for their literary and philosophical contributions to the humanities.
In his view, then, literacy has always been about literature, rather than the economic and religious purposes assumed by Greece’s neighbors in the Ancient Near East. More than likely, however, a balance of both descriptions is true: commercial contact led to linguistic imitation, which led to applications wider than mere commercial purposes (including literary, philosophical and religious ends), purposes which soon became primary.
One final question remains concerning the dating of The Odyssey: whether Homer himself wrote the text, or whether he did so with the aid of a personal scribe (an amanuensis). The significance of this question is usually viewed as twofold: first, in relation to the dating of the text and the origin of the Greek alphabet; and second, in relation to the traditional belief that Homer himself was blind. Concerning the first point, as demonstrated above, the mid-eighth century BC provides the perfect context for the ascension of the alphabet and the writing of The Odyssey, and therefore makes Homer’s use of the new alphabet at least plausible.
The answer to our question, then, relies primarily on our views concerning Homer’s sight (or lack thereof). Though in modern times sight alone does not imply the ability to read and write, in the ancient world blindness almost always meant that one could do neither of the other two. As you may recall, “the Pythian (Delphic) section of the Hymn to Apollo . . . speaks of him as a supreme poet who ‘dwelt in rocky Chios’ and was blind” (Grant 140). There is also a second candidate for a literary cameo as Demodocus, a blind bard in The Odyssey VIII.
Many have challenged this as an unfounded assumption. Indeed, tradition holds that many ancient prophets, poets and singers were blind and many modern scholars attribute the claim that Homer shared this disability as merely a misappropriation of a common trend. But since the historical record here is ambiguous, and since appeals to a lack of material evidence have thus far proven unfruitful, it is best to accept the traditional view of Homer as blind, at least at some point in his life. As Lord, then, argues:
In my own mind there remains no doubt that Homer dictated the Iliad [and The Odyssey] to someone else who wrote them down, because the Homeric poems have all the earmarks of dictated texts of oral epic songs. They are not the improvised texts of normal oral performance; without recording apparatus it is impossible to obtain such texts. (Teodorsson 165)
Though this remains the most plausible explanation, it remains possible that Homer himself acquired the ability to write and did not lose his sight until later in life, allowing him to first dictate his work, then rework it himself into the form in which we read it today. In either case, Homer was a visionary who saw that the “future” of the great epics was in the written word and not in the power of any single man’s memory.
The Iliad and The Odyssey remain two of the most important literary works of all time, especially in the West. On one level, the questions addressed above may seem to undermine the truth, beauty and timelessness of the poet’s work. On another, though, by better understanding both Homer and the context in which he worked, we are better equipped to see the true genius of his epics. For this reason, we have surveyed the historical and literary evidence concerning Homer’s life and times, and the significant role Phoenician displacement had on both Homer’s personal story and the form his language and works ultimately assumed. In the end, we have confirmed our wonder and admiration of the blind bard of Chios, and strengthened our resolve as we fight our generation’s battles and take the long road home.
As I have stated previously, the general fault of Rousseau’s thinking (in my view) is that his understanding of anthropology, human nature and culture is entirely too abstract. This is not to say that he does not occasionally shine through his psychobabble with an intelligent view on a particular point, but these moments are the exception rather than the rule. Aside from being contrary to his allegedly scientific approach to philosophy (can his conclusions really be measured empirically?), such abstraction also stretches itself to the point of self-contradiction. Note two passages, in which our author discusses the impact of death in the state of nature. “[And] since the life of the savage spares him from gout and rheumatism, and since old age is of all ills the one that human aid is least able to relieve, savages die in the end without others noticing that they have ceased to exist and almost without noticing it themselves” (Rousseau 84; see our first post for Works Cited).
Here Rousseau builds on his previous point that in the state of nature, each person is a law unto himself; he neither belongs, nor is responsible to or for any other. So much is this true that the concept of the ‘individual’ does not even enter into his mind. If there is nothing outside of ‘me’, how can there be a ‘me’? The natural man is therefore not an individualist, but merely IS. Death, then, has no emotional effect on either the individual or the species.
These thoughts, however, seem to be forgotten when Rousseau sets forth what he views as the only certain natural virtue we possess: compassion. Compassion is,
a disposition well suited to creatures as weak and subject to as many ills as we are, a virtue all the more universal, and all the more useful to man in that it comes before any kind of reflection, and is so natural a virtue that even beasts sometimes show perceptible signs of it. (Rousseau 99)
Such sympathy manifests itself in many ways in the state of nature. The way a mother nurtures her child; the way creatures mourn the loss of one of their own; or the way a man stands aghast at the torment of a child. Yet how could such compassion exist without some conception of pain, some sense of personal and social loss? How could one mourn the suffering or death of another, and not realize a sense of his own mortality? Rousseau even points to the behavior of some of our fellow creatures, “which give their dead a sort of burial” (99). Yet how could such be the case if one dies “without others noticing that they have ceased to exist and almost without noticing it themselves”?
So when Rousseau denies that the common view of “natural law” superimposes morality on the state of nature (70), when he denies that such a state is presented in the Scriptures (78), when he tries to separate “supernatural gifts” and man as he was meant to be (81), when he states that natural man has no conception of death or reason (84, 85), when he discusses “the origin of language” (92, 96-97), when he discusses sin as a mere social construction (99), when he presents self-preservation as man’s all (101, 109), when he connects property with injustice (109, 117, 125), and when he exalts the lone savage (136), we find that he has not defined the state of nature at all, but denied it.
Rousseau therefore rejects the concrete, biblical view of Eden for an abstract state of nature and denies the biblical doctrine of man in order to create “a new Adam, a carefree, make-love-not-war ancestral archetype” (Wiker 45). Unfortunately, later thinkers as diverse as Freud and Marx appear to have read him all too well, applying his thought with a consistency as rigorous as it is lamentable. As Wiker writes, “Modern man has discarded the idea that he is fashioned in the image of God, that he is to love his wife as himself, and that he should regard his children as precious miracles bearing his and his wife’s image” (Wiker 52). In other words, “In imagining Rousseau to be right, we have become what Rousseau imagined” (Wiker 53), and economics is only one of the many ways (and that, not the most important!) in which we suffer the consequences of Rousseau’s idyllic fantasies.
This “idyllic imagination” influenced much of the Age of Enlightenment in which Rousseau wrote and thought. The central goal of this period was to renovate our political, social, religious and moral convictions by upholding reason as the only legitimate source of authority (though this too was eventually debated). These European thinkers (many from either Scotland or France) hoped to provide more satisfying answers to the questions that had beset man from his earliest days (Rousseau 71; see our first post for Works Cited): What is it that makes us human? What is the purpose of our existence? What rights and responsibilities should we expect from others and ourselves? What is the relationship between freedom and equality? Does each have a right to what is his? How is human society best organized?
To answer these questions, many Enlightenment thinkers sought a better understanding of man in his prehistoric and (allegedly) pre-political society, which they commonly referred to as “the state of nature.” In other words, the Enlightenment sought to discover the true foundations of human society by going back to the beginning of human history in order to distinguish between (1) what is truly natural to us as humans, and (2) what we have acquired through the millennia of human experience.
It is when we combine these two elements of Enlightenment thought – (1) the desire to understand humanity based on the “state of nature” and (2) the reliance on pure reason – that we begin to see the inherent weakness of the Enlightenment mind. How can we, centuries removed from such pristine conditions rationally reconstruct such a state, even if only hypothetically? Though modern developments in science and archaeology have certainly aided our efforts, they have not yet answered our deepest questions. So to what can we appeal for objective verification? True consensus becomes practically impossible.
Rousseau recognizes this symptom but misdiagnoses the disease: “The philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt it necessary to go back to the state of nature, but none of them has succeeded in getting there” (Rousseau 78). By stating such, Rousseau clearly intends to prepare the reader to accept his own view of the matter, but he provides an equally compelling case to abandon the cause completely, at least as understood by his generation. As he points out, agreeing what needs to be done and being able to accomplish it together are quite different things and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers illustrate this well. While they agree that the “state of nature” is the starting point for properly understanding human nature, morality and society, it is difficult to find two such individuals who actually agree on what that state actually was like.
Rousseau himself considered the possible futility of his endeavor before he began, stating that man’s natural state “no longer exists, . . . perhaps never existed, and . . . will probably never exist” (Rousseau 68). Unfortunately, he consciously chose this very path:
Let us begin by setting aside all the facts, because they do not affect the question. One must not take the kind of research which we enter into as the pursuit of truths of history, but solely as hypothetical and conditional reasonings, better fitted to clarify the nature of things than to expose their actual origin. (Rousseau 78)
Rousseau therefore shuns a more historical approach to determining the state of nature, and instead relies on his own thoughts and experiences to build an image of man that is not only historically unverifiable, but also admittedly unreal. Yet while admitting that this is the case, he sets off to rationally peal back one layer at a time to arrive at the true man, unsullied by contact with an ever-decaying world. In his own words, “If I strip the being thus constituted of all the supernatural gifts that he may have received, and of all the artificial faculties that he can have acquired only through the long process of time” then at last, we might arrive at man as he was meant to be (Rousseau 81).
It’s not difficult to see, then, why some readers turn the other way when Rousseau and others begin speaking of the “state of nature.” Kirk identifies this as the greatest of Rousseau’s heresies, deriving his view on natural rights and civil society “from a mythical primeval condition of freedom” (Kirk, Conservative 49). Rousseau therefore becomes the quintessential idyllic thinker in Kirk’s works, as well as the perfect foil by which to compare more conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke, John Adams and Walter Scott (comparisons made countless times throughout The Conservative Mind). Whereas these men had relied on the continuity and consensus of Western thought as the foundation for their own approaches to morality, society and politics, Rousseau trusts in mere “idyllic fantasies,” which exist only in his own mind (Kirk, Conservative 322).
Perhaps the most grievous aspect of Rousseau’s imagination, however, is that he so candidly admits its conjectural nature in the very pages of his essay. Though simply not knowing can be tolerated, willful ignorance cannot. Yet “Rousseau seems to call attention to his fiction,” thereby adding folly to his list of faults (Wiker 44). Rousseau is no simpleton; yet his intelligence only amplifies his defects.