Saturday, September 29, 2018

City of Ladies - Christine de Pizan

In both the Iliad and the Odyssey Homer writes complex narratives about the effects of war and the collateral damage it has on both sexes. Gender seems more of an aside then a focal point for characters, women can be protectresses or monsters, they can be cunning and devious or loyal and faithful. Their gender doesn’t lock them in. Meanwhile, his contemporary poet Hesiod has a singular role for women to play, namely the origination of evil.

“Iapetos’ boy, if you’re the smartest of them all!
I bet you’re glad you stole fire and outfoxed me. 
But things will go hard for you and for humans after this. 
I’m going to give them Evil in exchange for fire, 
Their very own Evil to love and embrace.” 

That’s what he said, the Father of gods and men, 
And he laughed out loud.  Then he called Hephaistos
And told him to hurry and knead some earth and water 
And put a human voice in it, and some strength, 
And to make the face like an immortal goddess’ face
And the figure like a beautiful, desirable virgin’s. 

Then he told Athene to teach her embroidery & weaving,
And Aphrodite golden to spill grace on her head
And painful desire and knee-weakening anguish. 
And he ordered the quicksilver messenger, Hermes, 
To give her a bitchy mind and a cheating heart. 
[Works and Days trans. Stanley Lombardo, 72-87]

It’s hard to think of this as tongue-in-cheek. But…then as Works and Days progresses it becomes apparent that women are necessary, and not just a necessary evil. In his advice on marrying Hesiod suggests that “A man couldn’t steal anything better than a good wife…” 1 And so there emerges between the lines of misogyny a portrait of a hard working woman who by her character can foil the curse of Zeus. 

But this is didactic farming poetry. The discussion becomes a bit more serious in the hands of philosophers, in particular Aristotle. If there’s been a single human being who has been the background radiation for misogynistic texts it is Aristotle. He deviated from his predecessor, Plato who argued that the soul is sexless and both genders are capable of high level reasoning. Instead, Aristotle believed not only that women were inferior to men, but that they were a deformity of the pure masculine body. His premise is founded on an amazing mashup of 3rd century BC biology which pretty much says since women are “cold” and contribute little to procreation except incubation they are biologically destined to be ruled by their superiors: men. 

“Whilst man was thought to to be dominated by heat and dryness, woman was supposed to be ruled by coldness and moisture…this lack of heat meant that her body and mind were unstable. For example, it was feared, that she was in danger of going mad if her animal-like womb, which wandered at will due to the coldness of her body, ever strayed up into her head.” 2

By the time Augustine was writing City of God, (410 AD) this view of the inferiority of the female body had become so entrenched in the public discourse that Augustine had to a argue that at the resurrection women would retain their bodies and NOT be transformed into men, because their bodies were God given and as such not anathema. 

By 1405, when Christine de Paz begins to write, Aristotle and a misinterpretation of Judeo-Christian theology have cemented women to the bottom of the barrel; morally and otherwise.  So she picks up her pen and becomes the first woman to challenge this tradition head on, using a title that will call to mind Augustine’s treaty on the heavenly city, a city comprised of both earthly and heavenly citizens that have as their foundation a call to virtue and the pursuit of the glory of God. Christine will argue that in every city women have been integral to the moral and spiritual pursuits of the urban community. Without women there is no city.

City of Ladies falls into the the biographical catalogue genre. It is essentially a catalogue of narratives that will anecdotally challenge each slur thrown at women. The book begins with Christine reading some contemporary literature in her study:

“One day, I was sitting in my study surrounded by many books of different kinds, for it has long been my habit to engage in the pursuit of knowledge. My mind had grown weary as I had spent the day struggling with the weighty tomes of various authors whom I had been studying for some time. I looked up from my books and decided that, for once, I would put aside these difficult texts and find instead something amusing and easy to read.” [I.1]

Things to note in this opening salvo: 1) Christine is capable of high level rationality, despite what Aristotle might think, 2) She is capable of wrestling with weighty issues which shows a mental strength and capacity not often associated with women, 3) the book that is causing issues is the light and easy reading you look for when your brain is tired: a jibe at the author Matheolus. 

What she finds in the “easy” reading is such an awful and damning accusation against the character of women as a sex that she immediately becomes depressed. When all the authors and experts are “unanimous in their view that the female nature is wholly given up to vice” what hope is left? Christine comes to the conclusion that these authors must be right, God truly did create a “vile thing when he created women.” [I.1] 

“Oh Lord, how can this be?  Unless I commit an error of faith, I cannot doubt that you in your infinite wisdom and perfect goodness, could make anything that wasn’t good. Didn’t you yourself create woman especially and then endow her with all the qualities you wished her to have? How could you possibly have made a mistake in anything? Yet here stand women not simply accused, but already judged, sentenced and condemned….Oh God, why wasn’t I born a male so that my every desire would be to serve you, to do right in all things, and to be as perfect a creature as man claims to be?” [I.1]

As she sits in her sorry state, depressed and dejected, she sees a vision: three women stand before her, Reason, Rectitude and Justice. They have been sent to her by God to speak the truth and walk her through a critical analysis of the attacks and the ultimate defense. When they are finished, Christine will have constructed not just a “room of ones own” but a City of Defense, a City of Ladies that will buttress women against the attacks that they have become culturally saturated in.  

“The female sex has been left defenseless for a long time now, like an orchard without a wall, and bereft of a champion to take up arms to protect it…Even the strongest city will fall if there is no one to defend it, and even the most undeserving case will win if there is no one to testify against it…Now, however, it is time for them to be delivered out of the hands of Pharaoh.” 

The book then proceeds through three parts, or three main arguments. The first argument is against the weakness of women and it is filled with anecdotes of strength and valor. The second is against the promiscuity of women and it challenges these accusations with anecdotes of chastity and constancy. The third part looks at the faith of women, specifically those that have been martyred, despite the temptation to recant their faith, many women went through the most heinous of torture and did so with grace and the joy of their salvation. 

The first accusations are given with the benefit of a doubt: Some men are actually attempting to “rescue” innocent men that have fallen into the clutches of corrupt women…so in order to “prevent others from suffering the same fate, and to encourage men generally to avoid leading a lustful and sinful existence, they therefore attacked all women in order to persuade men to regard the entire sex as an abomination.” [I.8]

Christine asks the muses if in a scenario where misinformation is spread with good intentions…doesn’t that somewhat mitigate the damage? Reason responds emphatically: there is no excuse for plain ignorance. 

“Attacking one party in the belief that you are benefiting a third party is unfair. So is criticizing the nature of all women, which is completely unjustified, as I will prove to you by analogy. Condemning all women in order to help some misguided men get over their foolish behavior is tantamount to denouncing fire, which is a vital and beneficial element, just because some people are burnt by it, or to cursing water just because some people are drowned in it.” 

As Christine begins to build her metaphorical city, the foundation is built through anecdotes of female strength and valor. She picks up her shovel and removes a shovel full of soil while asking about Cicero and the philosophers. Aren’t they right when they say that a man should not be in subjection to a woman? Or that a man that is in subjection to a woman “debases himself” because it is morally wrong to be in subjection to your inferior? Or what about the the claim from Cato who argued that because the blight of “women” had been created, men no longer could converse with the gods? 

Again, Reason challenges these arguments, one spade full at a time. She argues that superiority or inferiority is not something regulated by gender but rather by “the degree to which one has perfected one’s nature and morals.” [I.9] And she further argues that mankind has gained far more through Mary than they have lost through Eve. The medieval obsession with making the focal point of Original Sin a female woman rather than humanity has distorted the actual Good News of the gospel. “If human nature is fallen, due to the actions of one of God’s creatures, it has been redeemed by the Creator Himself.” [I.9]

Christine begins to lay her foundation: who can match the political savvy of Empress Nicaula? [I.12] Or the noble warriors of the Amazons? [I.16] Or the cunning of Queen Artemisia who attacked Xerxes and routed his army. She pursued him over land and sea ultimately defeating him off the coast of Salamis. 

Here’s a quote from Aristotle: 

“The fact is, the nature of man is the most rounded off and complete, and consequently in man the qualities or capacities above referred to are found in their perfection. Hence, woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears, at the same time is more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike. She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful that the man, more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of more retentive memory. She is also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action, and requires a smaller quantity of nutrient. 

As was previously stated, the male is more courageous than the female, and more sympathetic in the way of standing by to help. Even in the case of the mollusks, when the cuttle-fish is struck with a trident the male stands by to help the female; but when the male is struck the female runs away.” 
[The History of Animal, Aristotle. 350 BC]

Christine’s task is almost impossible. She has to argue against the “it just makes sense” misogyny buttressed by “science” and cultural perceptions. Her argument is that women are more diverse that cuttle-fish, or Molossian dogs; not all women are capable of strength and valor, but some are. Not all women are capable of constancy and steadfastness, but equally so not all women are shrews. At the end of her book, after her city has been lovingly crafted, there is a place for all kinds of women. There is no role or objective for women, women are not expected to look a specific way or share specific tasks: the female spirit is diverse and beautiful and capable of grandeur in both the urban community and the domestic realm. This isn’t a treatise to get women out of the home, it’s a treatise to recognize that wherever women are they are a valuable asset. 

Rosalind Grant, in her introduction to City of Ladies, argues that Christine’s intent is twofold: “both to refute the misogynist equation of womankind with sinfulness and to instill a sense of self-worth in her female readers.” 3 But to equate Christine with our modern conception of feminism seems to miss the mark. Christine was not arguing for equality with men but rather basic dignity. She’s almost the same type of “feminist” as Plato, arguing that both men and women have been given souls, voices and rational minds. 

Reading City of Ladies six hundred years after it was written, still feels relevant and immediate. There are still debates about the appropriate “role” of women, without an emphasis placed on the diversity and talents given by God for his glory. There is still a debate about inferiority only now it’s referred to as “submission” and what Aristotle argued was true based on scientific observation, the Christian church has argued is true based on the “Eternal Subordination of the Son.” In any scenario where there is attempt to class and subdivide a population based on gender or race etc. this book is relevant. Human dignity shouldn’t be something left to the “feminists” to fight for; but rather anyone who believes we were created in the image of God with intent and specificity. 

Christine’s closing word of parting is this: 

“Let your hearts rejoice in doing good. I your servant, commend myself to you. I beg the Lord to shine His grace upon me and to allow me to carry on devoting my life to His holy service here on earth. May he pardon my great faults and grant me everlasting joy when I die, and may He do likewise unto you. Amen.” 

1. Lombardo, Stanley. Works and Days (Cambridge: HackettPublishing Company Inc, 1993), 777.
2. De Pizan, Christine, trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant. City of Ladies (London: Penguin Books) xx
3. De Pizan, Christine, trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant. City of Ladies (London: Penguin Books) xviii


Monday, August 27, 2018

City of God - Augustine

In 410AD King Alaric and his Visigoths sacked Rome. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The mere thought of barbarians conquering the most powerful nation on earth was inconceivable. The Empire that had ruled the world had been defeated and the wealth of the city was decimated. Shock and horror was soon followed by pointed accusations. Despite the Edict of Thessalonica in 380AD that had endorsed Nicene Christianity as the state religion Rome was still largely divided into pagan and Christian groups. The pagans began to circulate rumors that Christians were culpable for the decimation of Rome, they had caused Rome to turn her back on her true pagan gods. In particular, Zosimus, a Roman historian, claimed that “Christianity, through its abandonment of the ancient traditional rites, had weakened the Empire's political virtues, and that the poor decisions of the Imperial government that led to the sack were due to the lack of the gods' care.” 1

When Marcellinus, a Roman Christian official in North Africa, wrote Augustine a letter asking his opinion about the charges being made against Christianity, Augustine enthusiastically took up his pen. He was to spend the next thirteen years writing his response, which would become the City of God, in which his goal would be to absolve Christianity for the fall of Rome. 

I’ve been having stress dreams about how to tackle this book. How can one give a summation of a book that covers literally everything? Philip Schaff’s translation is 728 pages in length, not the longest book I’ve read, but Augustine is… more complicated. His side bar discussions are epic rabbit trails including a discussion on the aesthetics of male nipples and the longevity of peacock meat. He delves into the history of the world and the origin of evil, speculates on how animals dispersed after the flood, and argues with Plato, Varro, Origen, Tertullian and so many others. 

Augustine could have used an editor. Maybe that’s sacrilegious to say, but I’m in good company. Possidius, Augustine’s close friend and biographer, complained that Augustine wrote so much “that scarcely any student would be able to read and know them all,” 2 and Isidore of Seville cautioned that anyone claiming to have read all of his works was a liar. 3 (Granted, this last claim has more to do with their accessibility during the Middle Ages than the enormity of the corpus…but still…kind of the same thing.) 

For the last year I have spent a lot of time reading through some of the satirists of the first century, like Horace, Persius, Petronius and Juvenal. They were the clarion call for a society careening off the rails; a society where men became gods and dictated morality, while they themselves debauched with impunity. In many ways, four hundred years later, even after Rome has become christianized, Augustine’s claims have a similar ring to them. 

Augustine’s first ten chapters examine the claim of Zosimus with a critical eye: What has paganism contributed to the health and moral fabric of Rome? He begins his attack with the pagan literary hero Homer. If the gods can protect cities, why did they allow Troy to burn? If it was to punish Paris for his adultery, what about the fratricide of Romulus? Instead of being punished for murdering his brother the gods illogically became his guardian. As Augustine picks his way through Homer finding moral failings of the gods and showcasing their lack of omniscience, he argues in Book III.2: 

Gods, then, so great as Apollo and Neptune, in ignorance of the cheat that was to defraud them of their wages, built the wall of Troy for nothing but thanks from a thankless people. There may be some doubt as to whether it is not a worse crime to believe such persons to be gods, than to cheat such gods.”

Augustine is critical of Rome’s origin story. The mother of Romulus and Remus was a vestal virgin named Sylvia. How could the gods allow the sacrilege of her impregnation? Granted…she was walking through the sacred grove dedicated to Mars…what was Mars supposed to do? Not rape her?

This reminds me of Nero and the rape of the vestal virgin Rubia, which demonstrates Augustine’s point: Far from exemplifying honor and virtue, these pagan gods promote piracy and take what they will with impunity. If they reflect the powerful, reveling in their glory and taking what they desire as their due, what are mere mortals to emulate? And more dangerously- what about men who fashion themselves as gods? There is no such thing as chastity and virtue in the pagan god code of honor, and we’ve seen where this has lead Caligula, Nero and Domitian.

In the Confessions Augustine cautioned that allowing Terence to be read would likely corrupt school boys: While Jupiter pours himself through the skylight into DanaĆ«’s lap, the youth thinks: “Well, a poor fellow like me can’t do that, but I have imitated him in the other thing and what fun it was!” (Confessions 1.16:26) The scene not only serves to work up the lusts of a dissolute youth, but it also fosters a dangerous conception of masculinity. Are these their role models? Are these same gods that are transforming themselves into bulls and swans and having their way with unsuspecting maidens even capable of morality?

Next, Augustine goes into the disasters of the history of Rome with apparent relish. (III.18: “The Disasters Suffered by the Romans in the Punic Wars, Which Were Not Mitigated by the Protection of the Gods”, III.20: “Of the Destruction of the Saguntines, Who Received No Help from the Roman Gods, Though Perishing on Account of Their Fidelity to Rome,” etc.) You can almost see the fifty-nine year old Augustine, hunched over his writing desk, the psalms plastered to his stucco walls, enthusiastically writing each failure of the pagan gods.

And then Augustine sharpens his attack. The decline of morality in Rome can not entirely be blamed on the pagan gods, but rather the humans that worship them and the cesspool of debauchery that has come to constitute pagan ritual worship. This worship called for an emulation of lust and avarice rather than virtue. 

In Book VII Augustine delves into the obscene worship rituals in honor of Bacchus and his coterie. Brides are outraged by the “god” Priupus [VII.24], and men are castrated in honor of the Great Mother [VII.25-26]. In VII.34-35 Augustine talks about the discovery of the sacred writings of the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. Numa is credited with the creation of Rome’s most important political and religious institutions, (as well as the creation of a twelve month calendar.)  One fateful day, his writings are discovered by a farmer in Janiculum, and the senate deemed these rites to be so dangerous that they demanded the book to be burned. 4

We’ve heard a description of worship getting out of hand in the satires of Persius, what Kirk Freundenburg referred to as “Nero’s Orgasmatron.”4  Persius argues that the citizens of Rome have prostituted themselves on the altar of Nero, hoping for scraps of the enormous wealth that has washed into the city after each foreign conquest. They have lost their moral plumb line and are willing to put up with obscenity if it comes with a seven course meal. It seems obvious that it wasn’t “through the abandonment of the ancient traditional rites” that the Empire’s virtue has become weakened, but rather because of them.

Varro has a solution. Since Homer and Hesiod say such awkward things about the gods, and put the gods in such a negative light, there must be different types of revelation that fall into different categories of theology: mythical, physical and political. The mythic is within the purview of the poets, the physical: the philosopher, and the political: ordinary citizens. Sounds simple enough. 

“In the first of these theologies are found many fictions unworthy of the dignity and nature of immortal beings. For in this kind of theology one divinity [Minerva] was born from another’s head, a second [Bacchus] from a thigh, a third [Pegasus] from drops of blood; some gods [e.g.Mercury] were thieves, others [e.g. Jupiter] adulterers, and still others [Apollo] slaves of men, and in general deeds are attributed to gods which are not merely human but abnormal.” 

Varro then delineates where the appropriate worship and knowledge of each theology takes place: “The first kind of theology is suitable for the theater; the second, for the world; the third, for the city.” [VI.5] Augustine finds this logic confusing. Isn’t the city part of the world? And aren’t theaters usually in cities? At the end of Varro’s forty-one books instead of a systematic theology, Augustine finds systematic confusion. At the end human learning “however broad and deep, is of no avail.” [VI.6] And he argues that Varro’s final product is “so close in the fellowship of falsehood as to delight the demons whose only battle is with teaching of truth.” [VI.6]

The problem with this tripartite system is that the theater is one of the few egalitarian spaces. Maybe the upper echelons of society get better seats, but all classes and genders were allowed to participate, and here in this space the spectators become active participants in a type of formative theology. The narrative always emphasizes the logic and might of imperial power. In the mock battles of the circus the emperor, cloaked in divine authority, chooses who lives and who dies.

Some theologians argued that for the persecuted Christian glory and honor were still within their grasp despite the details of their death. Tertullian discussed the spectacle of Christian martyrdom in An Address to the Martyrs and concluded that even for the mutilated bodies of the murdered Christians glory was still available, won from the trial of a gruesome public death. But Augustine would disagree. The quest for glory leads to self love, which further leads to the love of power and dominion, and all of this leads to pride. 

“Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God: “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head””

For the Christian our example is the “self emptying humility of the cross.” 6 There was nothing glorious in Christ’s death. There was nothing glorious in the humiliation of the cross, but for the Christian that is not the end of the story. What was glorious was His conquering of sin and death and His resurrection. 

“Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” 
[Philippians 2:9-11]

For the Christian, everything is done for the glory of God. All spectacles are for His name and His honor: 

“When raised to Him, our heart becomes his altar; His only Son is the priest who wins us for his favor…We burn the sweetest incense in His sight when we are aflame with holy piety and love. As the best gift we consecrate and surrender to Him our very selves which He has given us.’ 

While the gratuitous sex and murder has become a stumbling block for the “theology of the theater,” Christ’s humility has become the stumbling block for the philosophers. They are repulsed by his humanity. Why would God leave the sanctity of heaven to debase himself as a man, why would he humble himself by taking on the form of a servant?  The philosophers trust in themselves and their ability to intellectually pursue virtue. Augustine is unimpressed: 

You drive men, therefore, into the most palpable error. And yet you are not ashamed of doing so much harm, though you call yourself a lover of virtue and wisdom. Had you been true and faithful in this profession, you would have recognized Christ, the virtue of God and the wisdom of God, and would not, in pride and vain science, have revolted from His wholesome humanity…But He fulfills what the holy prophets truly predict regarding Him: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nought the prudence of the prudent.” 

For Rome, moral depravity didn't begin in 313AD with the Edict of Milan or in 380AD with the Edict of Thessalonica; it didn’t begin with Romulus and Remus or Numa, rather it was the foundation the city was built on; it is the foundation all human cities are built on. Augustine brings up another fratricide: the story of Cain and Abel.  While Romulus and Remus represent a city divided against itself, the story of Cain and Abel represent the enmity between the two cities: the city of man and the City of God. Cain’s battle wasn’t with his brother, it was against his envious heart. 

“The root of the trouble was that diabolical envy which moves evil men to hate those who are good for no other reason than that they are good…the fact is that in everyone ‘the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh.” 

This war between spirit and flesh is ultimately the battle of the two cities. The earthly city is preoccupied with a longing of ‘belonging’ here in this world and the other is “City of longings for God.” [XV.21] And the victory won’t be shed by our blood and what we contribute to the fight, but by what has already been accomplished by our mediator and king: the God-Man Jesus Christ. 

Both cities occupy the same temporal place, one is symbolically called Jerusalem, or vision of peace, and the other Babylon or Babel which represents confusion. The battle field is not a physical place but rather the hearts and minds of men, and it exists beyond tribes and countries. Here, in this world both Christians and pagans will suffer tribulation: 

“For, in the same fire, gold gleams and straw smokes; under the same flail the stalk is crushed and the grain threshed; the lees are not mistaken for oil because they have issued from the same press. So, too, the tide of trouble will test, purify, and improve the good, but beat, crush and wash away the wicked. So it is that, under the weight of the same affliction, the wicked deny and blaspheme God, and the good pray to Him and praise Him. The difference is not what people suffer but in the way they suffer. The same shaking that makes fetid water stink makes perfume issue a more pleasant odor.” 

The next 500 pages serve as a warning for everyone to recognize the active battle between these two cities: the city of the flesh and the city of the spirit. Augustine believes that the real calamity isn’t the destruction of a city but rather the destruction of a heart saturated in moral depravity.

Ultimately this book is a call to action for Augustine’s fellow Christians. A call to emulate the humility and compassion of our savior. A call to emulate his life and death, dying to self that He might be glorified. Thanks to the grace of God through Jesus, the trials and tribulations of the Christian are not meaningless but serve to draw them closer to God. The world is a living system of entropy. It will fail, it will be destroyed. The hope isn’t that the Christian will not suffer, but rather that she will bear her sufferings with a “stout heart, and with a fortitude that find its strength in faith.” [XXII.22] The goal isn’t to survive well in this life, but to wait with hope and expectation for the next.

1. Mitchell, Stephen.  A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284–641. Blackwell Publishing, 2007. page 27.
3. PL 83.1109
4. This article offers a different option, arguing that it wasn’t the danger of evil or moral corruption the senate found to be scandalizing, but rather Numa’s apparent Hellenism. 
5. Freudenburg, Kirk. Satires of Rome: Threatening poses from Lucilius to Juvenal. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
6. Wetzel, James, editor. Augustine’s City of God: A Critical Guide. Jennifer Herdt “The theater of the virtues: Augustine’s critique of pagan mimesis”, Cambridge University Press, 2012.  


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Satires of Persius

In high school my sister and I took a community college English class together. As somewhat sheltered homeschoolers this was the big time. We were surrounded by worldly and knowledgable people; we held our own and tried to convince ourselves we weren’t socially awkward. 

One of the short stories we had to read and discuss was “The Rocking Horse Winner” (1926) by D.H. Lawrence. The basic plot is this: a family is struggling financially, the mother insists it’s because they are unlucky, she has thrown away her life on a worthless man and now she’s trapped in a house that whispers “More money! There must be more money!” Her son attempts to rectify the situation by betting on horse races. Luckily he has a little trick up his sleeve that involves riding his rocking-horse into a moment of ecstasy when the name of the next winner is revealed. This works! He starts surreptitiously giving his mother his winnings, but her response is to become even more avaricious. Her hunger for more drives him into a frenzy of rocking-horse riding…that eventually leads to him once again picking a winner and simultaneously dying of brain fever. So in a nutshell, this is a didactic lesson on the danger of chasing after wealth that is forever just outside your grasp. 

I was young and innocent. In class when lewd suggestions were made about Paul’s rocking-horse business, I stood up and eloquently defended him. There was nothing untoward about rocking yourself into a trance. Totally normal behavior. Here’s a quote: 

“When he had ridden to the end of his mad little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his rocking horse, starring fixedly into its lowered face. Its red mouth was slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy bright.” 

(Side note: D.H. Lawrence isn’t really known for chaste and innocent writing. The Rainbow (1915) was censured after an obscenity trial and over one thousand copies were seized and destroyed…) 

I refused to read anything sexual between the lines. I think my professor probably thought I was adorably naive. His response to my tirade was something along the lines of “…huh..” Still, there’s a difference between being naive and innocent, and willfully obtuse. And this is the accusation Persius makes against the Roman aristocracy. 

Like Paul, riding his rocking-horse into a state of “frenzy”, Persius argues that Nero has rode the aristocracy into a paroxysm of debauchery and moral debasement. The aristocracy aren’t innocent bystanders, they are complicit. And after each “riding” they emphatically beg for more. 

First, a little context. It’s 59 AD, and Nero has finally become a man. He’s been the caesar for the last five years, but there’s been rumors that he’s been entirely controlled by his mother, Agrippina, and the rumors aren’t hard to believe. (One of his first acts, after deifying his uncle Claudius, whom he was rumored to have poisoned with mushrooms, was to elect his mother “The Best of Mothers” and leave all “public and private affairs to her capable hands.”1) But it’s November and his Mother has been dead since March, when he had her murdered, and now it’s time to celebrate the trimming of his first beard hair. The celebration commences with a bit of poetry as Nero takes his place among the gods. The most distinguished of citizens were “offered” compulsory participation in his Juvenilia and those that weren’t debasing themselves on the stage were fighting each other in the stands for the bits and bobbles being thrown at them. To get on his bad side all one needed to do was applaud slightly less emphatically than everyone else. 

Suetonius says that at first Nero practiced his vices with reserve. He was seventeen when appointed caesar, and more interested in singing and preening than affairs of state. But now, five years later, he has come into his own. Convinced like many of his predecessors that he is a god, Apollo himself, his compulsory hero worship takes a turn for the worse. 

“His vices gaining strength by degrees, he laid aside his jocular amusements and all disguise; breaking into enormous crimes, without the least attempt to conceal them.” 2

“Besides the abuse of free-born lads, and the debauch of married women, he committed a rape upon Rubria, a Vestal Virgin. He was upon the point of marrying Acte, his freedwomen, having suborned some men of consular rank to swear that she was of royal descent. He gelded the boy Sporus, and endeavored to transform him into a woman. He even went so far as to marry him, with all the usual formalities of a marriage settlement, the rose-colored nuptial veil, and numerous company at the wedding. When the ceremony was over, he had him conducted like a bride to his own house and treated him as his wife. It was jocularly observed by some person, ‘that it would have been well for mankind, had such a wife fallen to the lot of his father Domitius.’ This Sporus, he carried about with him in a litter round the column assemblies and fairs of Greece, and afterwards at Rome through the Sigillaria, dressed in the rich attire of an empress; kissing him from time to time as they rode together…” 3

I’m leaving so much out…but the point has been made. He has insulted the gods by raping a vestal virgin, he has insulted societal decorum by his attempt to marry a freedwoman and he has insulted nature with his marriage to Sporus. His absolute power has quickly led to absolute corruption. And yet the people do nothing! They cheer for the newlyweds, they attend his poetry recitations and applaud, (granted there are five thousand “Augustan” soldiers making sure the crowd appropriately responds…but still.) (According to Dio the citizens were supposed to follow the lead of the soldiers/cheerleaders and proclaim: “Hurrah for Caesar! He’s Apollo! Augustus! A match for the Pythian himself! We swear by your own self, O Caesar, no one defeats you!”) 4

And this is where Persius comes in. In his prologue he immediately gets to the point: 

That’s not how I suddenly became a poet,
By wetting my lips in the Hippocrene, 
Or dreaming on the twin peaks of Parnassus
I leave the Muses, and Pirene’s pale
Spring, to those with busts to which
A crown of ivy clings; a semi-pagan
I bring my song to the bards’ holy rites.
What teaches the parrot to squawk: “Hello!”
And urges the magpie to try human speech? 
Hunger, that master of arts, and dispenser of skills, 
For if there’s the gleam of a hope of crafty gain, 
You’ll hear crow-poets and magpie-poetesses
Singing in praise of Pegasian nectar. 
[Persius, Prologue to the Satires. Translated by A.S. Kline, 2011]

Unlike Hesiod, who tends his sheep and then is visited by the Muses; a mortal, handpicked by the gods to reveal the creation of the world, Persius is driven by a different muse, hunger. Not physical hunger, but moral emaciation. Helikon (the mountain of Hesiod’s Muses) has been replaced by the twin peaks of Parnassus, sacred to Apollo and Dionysus - the gods of poetic inspiration. Only, Nero has elbowed Apollo out of the way, so in Persius’ retelling it is Nero in the mist and haze waiting to reveal his cosmogenic reality, but Persius walks the other way. The crown of ivy no longer represents victory and honor, but moral turpitude. The aristocracy has lost respectability, toadying to a monster for the chance to live another day in a modicum of pleasure. In this world, the only way to survive is to become semi-pagan. All worship has become corrupted, the gods have become a laughing stock, and either they exist and don’t care (allowing their vestal virgins to be raped with impunity without lightning striking from heaven) or they have left long ago. 

Here stands Persius, a lonely poet, hemmed in on every side with vice and corruption. Juvenal summarizes the zeitgeist under Domitian in a similar way, arguing that when morality has been tossed in the bin and “Flabby impotence takes him a wife…etc” (J.S.1.19-50) -to not write satire is what comes hard. He has been driven to write by the incomprehensible wickedness that permeates everything. Like Juvenal and Horace and the rest of the Roman satirists, Persius is compelled to write, it is his civic duty. 

Satire 1
-O troubled humanity! O the emptiness of life! 
-Who wants to read about that? 
-Are you asking me? No one, by Hercules!
-No one? 
-No one or two. 
-That’s wretched pathetic. 
-Why? Because the noble ‘Trojans’ and their women 
Happen to prefer Attius Labeo’s Iliad to my verse? 
Nonsense. If turbid Rome weighs something lightly
Don’t go looking for fault in the scales, don’t look 
Beyond yourself…

He begins with his accusation: Rome is too busy hellenizing itself to realize there’s a moral famine. They have become obsessed with all things Trojan, not the Homeric version, but rather the hack-poet version of Labeo who has translated the Iliad into Latin and spoon fed it to the masses. 

A great example of this is Petronius’ Satyricon. Everyone is constantly referencing the Iliad, but out of context and incorrectly. Everything is a farce. It’s a psychedelic world of crazy, where name dropping Homer moves you one seat closer to the place of honor at a dinner that is more like a musical comedy. 

Kirk Freudenburg says this about Persius: “He alerts us to the problem in the opening lines of his first hexameter poem. Labeo’s tight Latin translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, he tells us, are all the rage, a quick and easy Homeric fix for upwardly mobile Romans who have fallen behind in their Greek; all those “Polydamases” and “Trojan Women” who cannot manage their Homer in the original.” 5

Why is this significant? Because saturated in the cult of Troy they have forgotten themselves. The scales are broken. The Delphic oracle is suppressed, there is no desire to “know thyself”…the only desire is to stroke along with the current of popular trends. To survive. 

But Persius argues that this is not survival. They have lost their moral compass, that have lost the ability for thoughtful criticism that comes only with painstaking work. They have taken the easy road and it has led to moral prostitution. 

Neatly, in a white toga, wearing your birthday ring
Of sardonyx, you’ll read to the audience from your 
Tall seat, while you gargle with water to rinse your
Fickle throat, your expressive [ejaculating] eyes moved to tears
Then you’ll watch as grown men tremble, their sober
Manner and tranquil voices gone, as your poetry stirs
Their loins, your rhythmic verse works away inside. 
So, old man, you compose tit-bits, for other’s ears
To make even your decrepit skin and bones cry “Stop!” 

Freudenburg has an amazing take on all of this: “But what, from one angle, looks like an exciting new world of governance and good taste, with emperor and aristocrats performing “in concert” to the rhythms of Nero’s pounding new beat, from another angle, Persius’ angle, looks like nothing more than a cheap pornographic sideshow featuring Nero’s outsized dick performing spectacular feats of multiple-penetration on Rome’s eager and amazingly orgasmic aristocracy. It is a jarring spectacle, hard to look at.” 6

Yikes? (I’ve come a long way since the “Rocking-Horse Winner…) 

The rest of Satire 1 deals with the problem of what to do in a world where criticism is dead and everyone is too afraid to tell the truth. 

Then say ‘I love the truth, tell me the truth about myself.
How can I? Do you want me to say you’re talking rubbish,
Baldy, you with your fat belly sticking out a foot and a half? 

The safer course is to only speak truth behind the back of your patron and those in power. (Patronage destroys the ability to speak truth objectively.) Juvenal comes up with another option: only lampoon those who have been dead for a long time, but even this plan is not failsafe. His criticisms of the dead seem a bit too contemporary and he is exiled by Domitian until Nerva becomes emperor. 

Truth telling always comes with a risk. The very thing that drove Persius to begin his project, hunger, ironically will be the thing that keeps the populace trapped. The risk of becoming hungry is too much to bear. So they continue to flatter, they deify Nero and tell him he’s the best they’ve ever had. There’s too much risk in alienating a matricidal tyrant, alienation means no invitation to dinner. 

While it’s tempting to read Petronius as a veiled critique of all things Neronian…Freudenburg and others argue that is too simplistic. There’s another person, standing off in the shadows of hypocrisy. 


In “The Apocolocyntosis” Seneca writes a bit of eulogy propaganda. After being banished by Claudius, Agrippina had called him back to be her son’s tutor. Now Claudius is dead and although Nero has deified him Seneca writes a short story that throws him into hell as the perpetual secretary of Caligula. Poetic justice is served. 

Or is it? One of the fathers of stoicism has tutored the world’s most un-stoic tyrant. Seneca teaches everything in moderation; Nero’s life is a study in excess. Nero has showed himself an unruly pupil, but what Seneca has become is worse. Remember the Juvenilia? Taking his place beside Nero on stage stood Seneca and Burrus. Dio writes: “like teachers, prompting him (Nero); they would wave their arms and togas at every utterance of his and lead others to do the same.”  7

Seneca has lost his credibility and it won’t be long before he takes his place in the long list of compulsive suicides. In the end the question becomes: what drives a person to debase themselves? What whispers haunt them, driving them on until they become unrecognizable? Is it the whispering voice of “More money! There must be more money!” Or during the mercurial reign of tyrants is it “More life! Anything for one more day!” When the poets and philosophers have become little more than “crow-poets and magpie-poetesses” pecking at shiny objects there is no one left to speak truth. 

Foot notes:
2. Suetonius, V.XXVII
3. Suetonius V.XXVIII
5. Freudenburg, Kirk. Satires of Rome: Threatening poses from Lucilius to Juvenal. Cambridge University Press, 2001
6. Ibid. 

The Satires of Persius 
Politics and Invective in Persius and Juvenal 
Nero: The End of a Dynasty 
The Rocking Horse Winner 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Hesiod - Works and Days

At the end of the Theogony, the genealogies of heroes emerge and begin to cement themselves into the histories of men. Hesiod has moved beyond the tradition of a local cult into a larger myth, creating a new story for a Panhellenic people. The most powerful families of Greece will trace their lineage to the age of Heroes and legitimize their divine authority to rule.

Now in Works and Days Hesiod circles back to discuss the origin of humans. There have been five different ages, five attempts at human creation, all of which have failed for a variety of different reasons. At the end of each epoch, each failure is destroyed or subsumed and the gods plunge their hands once more into the primordial sludge to begin again.

The first race of men, the Golden Age, was an age of ‘articulate folks’ that lived like Gods, ‘nothing to do with hard work or grief.’ [134] This Golden Age of men lacked the ability to reproduce, and having not been given the gift of immortality they died and were covered by the Earth. Because of their near perfection they became holy spirits and now take their place as invisible wardens for the whole human race. 

They roam all over the land, shrouded in mist,
Tending to justice, repaying criminal acts. 
And dispensing wealth. This is their royal honor. 

The Olympians tried their hand at human generation again, this time with the Silver Age. They compensated for the singular flaw of the Golden Age by creating a race of men that could procreate, but this time the race is infantile and weak, being nursed by their mothers for a hundred years only to live a short and futile adulthood. The pacifism of the golden age has been replaced by fratricide:

They did not live very long, and pain at that,
Because of their lack of wits. They just 
could not stop hurting each other and could not bring themselves
To serve the Immortals, nor sacrifice at their altars
The way men ought to, wherever and whenever. 

Zeus, angered by their incompetence and their refusal/ inability to worship the gods, does away with the race, yet due to their simplicity they are not cast into Hades, but take their place as the Blessed underground mortals; second in status but still with a modicum of honor. 

Next, Zeus takes things into his own hands, too many Olympian cooks in the kitchen has had disastrous results. So Zeus single handedly creates the next race of ‘articulate folk’  in what will become the Bronze Age. This time instead of noble metals Zeus creates men from ash trees and his creation is even more disastrous than their predecessors. The Bronze age men look like monsters. In correcting for the weak and infantile men of the Silver Age Zeus has created a generation of cunning warriors with excessive physical strength, unable to restrain their penchant for violence or channel their gratuitous strength and power to meaningful ends, they are destined for anonymous deaths in the halls of Hades. 

They didn’t eat any food at all.
They had this kind of hard, untamable spirit. 
Shapeless hulks. Terrifically strong. Grapple hook hands
Grew out of their shoulders on thick stumps of arms, 
And they had bronze weapons, bronze houses, 
And their tools were bronze. No black iron back then. 
Finally they killed each other off with their own hands
And went down into the bone-chilling halls of Hades. 
And left no names behind. Astounding as they were, 
Black Death took them anyway, and they left the 
sun’s light. 

Another failure, another attempt. This time, the Age of Heroes, Zeus directs the lustful gaze of his compatriot gods (and himself) to the world of men. This is the race of heroes and demigods, a humanity mixed with both divine and mortal blood. The first cities (Thebes and Troy) are created and these men die in epic battles for the sake of honor and justice. 

And some, crossing the water in ships. 
Died at Troy, for the sake of beautiful Helen. 
And when Death’s veil had covered them over
Zeus granted them a life apart from other men, 
Settling them at the ends of the Earth. 
And there they live, free from care. 
In the Isles of the Blest, by Ocean’s deep stream. 
Blessed heroes for whom the life-giving Earth 
Bears sweet fruit reining three times a year. 

The flaw of the Age of Heroes is that it requires perpetual tending. When the gods withdraw from intercourse with mankind, what is left is a barren world, devoid of hope, and it is here that Hesiod and his brother Perses find themselves: The Iron age, where for those without power or legitimacy it is a struggle to survive. 

Then the fifth generation: Broad-browed Zeus 
Made still another race of articulate folk
To people the plentiful earth. 
I wish I had nothing to do with this fifth generation, 
Wish I had died before or been born after, 
Because this is the Iron Age. 
Not a day goes by 
A man doesn’t have some kind of trouble. 
Nights too, just wearing him down. 
I mean the gods send us terrible pain and vexation. 

Ultimately this age too will be destroyed. Men will start being born aged, with grey hair around their temples. They will be incapable of kindness and compassion but will spend their time bickering and fighting.  They will take justice into their own hands, forgetting the gods, forgetting their place in the cosmos. Mankind will destroy each other, goaded by envy and injustice, and ultimately only Shame and Suffering will be left and there will be no defense against evil. 

As Works and Days opens, Hesiod and his brother Perses find themselves living in Askra “bad in winter, godawful in summer nice never,” [709] in the midst of a feud. Perses has stolen his brother’s inheritance and then after presumably spending it all like a ‘damn fool’ he’s back…asking for more money. What Hesiod decides to do instead is give his brother a thousand line essay on how to live a better life, attempting to teach him a skill set (justice and hard work) so that he will no longer find himself begging for his survival.

Perses is a foil for this generation's tendency towards folly. What begins as sloth and laziness and a little dishonesty will sew the seed of their destruction. Perses has chosen injustice over justice, he has chosen sloth and laziness over hard work and perseverance, the simple option of stealing his brother's inheritance rather than labor for his food. Life is hard, and humans must toil, that is their lot. To struggle against the gods would only be foolish. 

It’s what the hawk said high in the clouds
As he carried off a speckled-throated nightingale
Skewered on his talons. She complained something pitiful,
And he made this high and mighty speech to her: 

No sense in your crying. You’re in the grip of real strength now
And you’ll go where I take you, songbird or not.
I’ll make a meal of you if I want, or I might let you go. 

Only a fool struggles against his superiors. 
He not only gets beat, but humiliated as well. 

Thus spoke the hawk, the windlord, his long wings beating. 
[W&D 235-245]

Hesiod again tells the Prometheus story. In retribution for Prometheus giving fire back to humans, Zeus hides how to make a living from humans[60], forcing them to eke out their survival day in and day out. Part two of the curse was creating women, not as a helpmeet but as a ‘real pain for human beings.’[103] Hesiod will later caution his brother not to let a ‘sashaying female pull the wool over his eyes,’ they might look good on the outside but really they’re just fishing for your barn. “Trust a woman as you would a thief.”[419-421] As soon as this woman, Pandora, shows up, she immediately opens her jar and dumps petulance, misery, disease and famine all over the land. The only thing left clinging to the lip of the jar is hope. [117] 

The only way to survive, especially if you are poor, is to cultivate justice, yet only divine Justice can beat out Violence. Men have a propensity for injustice, where Lady Justice is dragged through the streets by corrupt judges, who swallow bribes and pervert their verdicts. Justice in the hands of humans tends toward corruption and chaos. Even after his soliloquy on the benefits of justice, to choose to live uprightly in a world of evil seems foolish. 

The eye of Zeus sees all and knows all, 
And if he wants, he’s looking here right now, 
And the kind of justice this city harbors 
Doesn’t fool him one bit. As for me, I’d as soon 
Not be a just man, not myself or my son. 
It’s no good at all for a man to be just
When the unjust man gets more than what’s just. 
But I don’t look for Zeus in his wisdom
To bring things to that pass for a long time. 

Rather than seek conquests and easy wealth, (like stealing his brother's inheritance), Hesiod urges his brother to return to a quiet life of farming; to quietly and with humility tend his crops; to work with his hands, or rather to work in any capacity so long as he does it diligently. Work is the antidote for hunger. The wealth of hard earned crops is the antidote for poverty which leads to crime and vice. 

Hunger is the lazy mans constant companion. 
Gods hate him, and men do too, the loafer 
Who lives like the stingless drones, wasting 
The hives honey without working themselves, 
Eating free. 
You’ve got to schedule your work 
So that your sheds will stay full of each season’s harvest.
It’s work that makes men rich in flocks and goods. 
When you work you're a lot dearer to the Gods
And to people too. Everybody hates a lie about. 

After his discussion on justice, we have come to the end of the homily portion of the poem. What follows is an agricultural treatise that is sometimes referred to as the 'Farmers Almanac' 1 The poem has moved from anthropology to didactic poetry with advice such as: 

“plant naked, plow naked, reap naked” 


Doing things right is the best thing in the world 
Just like doing ‘em wrong is the absolute worst. 

If you ever get the urge for hard seafaring 
When the Pleiades chased by gigantic Orion 
Fall into the misty sea, well forget it: 
All sorts of winds are whipping around then. 

It is here, that we begin to notice the mutability of Zeus. His mind is hard to predict, variable, changeable. Throughout the poem the other gods have slowly been relegated to the sidelines, and without the mediating role of Hekate [Theogony 415-450] Zeus alone controls the fate of mankind. "Little by little, the earlier guarantees and promises give way to growing uncertainty. And the gods, especially Zeus, contribute to it. Tellingly, in the later sections of the poem, Zeus, who had been previously said to grant prosperity [281, 379] is now named as the source of poverty. [637-38]"2 What began as a song of praise in the opening of the poem, now sounds a bit sinister.

Come sing Zeus’ praises, hymn your great Father
Through whom mortals are either
Renowned or unknown, famous or unnamed
As goes the will of great Zeus. 
Easy for Him to build up the strong
And tear the strong down. 
Easy for Him to diminish the mighty
And magnify the obscure.
Easy for Him to straighten the crooked
And wither the proud.

All throughout the Famers Almanac there are systems of order, the best days for planting and harvesting etc. But what if you do everything right? What if you remember to ‘never piss standing up while facing the sun’[806] or ‘never beget children after coming home from a burial’[815] and you always make sure to ‘never let boys of twelve sit on gravestones.’? Even if you do everything right, the gods owe you nothing. Humans have created order to ensure predictability, but the gods will never be caged in by predictions. It is man’s lot to get his work done as best he can and hope he doesn’t offend the gods.  

No matter what your situation, it is better to work. 

*All quotes from Works and Days are from: 
Lombardo, Stanley. Hesiod: Works and Days and Theogony. Cambridge, Hackett Publishing, 1993.

1. Strauss, Jenny. Hesiod's Cosmos. Cambridge, University Press, 2003.
2. Strauss, Jenny. Chapter 6: "Perspectives on Gods and Men"

Other Material: 
Hesiod- The Other Poet: Ancient Reception of Cultural Icon 
Introduction to Hesiod 

City of Ladies - Christine de Pizan

In both the Iliad and the Odyssey Homer writes complex narratives about the effects of war and the collateral damage it has on both...