May 05, 2010

Augustine's Pagan Gods

Romulus's elevation to godhood furnished Augustine with two attacks on paganism. The first we have already discussed and concerned the definition of miracles. The second is even more revelatory- this time not of the difference between Christianity and Christianity, but between paganism and Christianity. Augustine with horror commented that the Romans believed that consent made a god, it must have been a 'polite fiction' and if Cicero admits that Romulus died, he must be admitting Romulus was a man (III 15). The pagans presumably were not or not all of them performing a 'polite fiction', what Augustine is doing here is deliberately changing the meaning of the word God.

Augustine's god stands above human beings and his status is unalterable. It is there by nature, part of the inherent definition of his existance. Anselm, a later Christian philosopher, anchored his own definition of God's existance in God's position as the perfect, omnipotent and omniscient entity presiding over the universe. But the position of Romulus did not fit this model. Rather Romulus went up a ladder between the human and divine, he began as a man, became a hero and ended a God. What this suggests is a world of fluidity where divinity and manhood interrelated. Augustine's christianity divides heaven and earth, he ridicules the wooing of women by the Olympians and mocks the protection of the Gods for ordinary men, his God stands apart and above history.

Although pagans and Christians said the same word, God, they meant different things!

May 03, 2010

Augustine's Miracles

What do you mean by a miracle? Most modern Christians and atheists would agree on what a miracle is: it is the suspension of the divine clockwork of the universe in favour of an action by God. Most religious people now accept Newton and Galileo, Einstein and even Darwin and suggest that far from contradicting religion, science operates in a different sphere to it. Science studies the regularity of this world, religion the intrusion into this world of another world. We presume to think that such a position is pretty modern- and there is good evidence that it is. For John Cook in the seventeenth century for example rain was not a natural phenomenon but a God given sign that Charles I should follow in the same way as Saul. But such understandings were not the only ones about, and Western religion has oscillated in its understanding of the meaning of a miracle between suggesting a miracle is any marvellous event and suggesting that it is an event which violates the laws of nature.

Consider for example this passage from St Augustine's City of God. It describes the reasons that the people of Rome, after the death of Romulus, beleived he was a God. Augustine suggests that this was a political device, implemented by the senate, to convince the people that the senate should not be treated as traitors for murdering Romulus. He says they were aided in this project of making the King divine by nature: for

For an eclipse of the sun had also occurred and the ignorant multitude, not knowing that this happens according to the determinate laws of the sun's own movement, attributed it to the merits of Romulus. (III 15)

There we have it- a marvellous event is not a miracle, not a divine insertion because it is a natural event created by natures 'determinate laws' rather than by direct divine agency. This is not to say that Augustine did not believe in miracles, he did. But when he describes a miracle he makes it clear that it violated the laws of nature. The eclipse at Christ's death was a miracle as it

did not come about through the natural movement of the heavenly bodies [which] is sufficiently shown by the fact that it took place during the Passover of the Jews. For this festival is held at full moon, whereas eclipses of the sun usually take place at the last quarter of the moon. (III 15)
Cook argues that a miracle is an event which signifies something, rain is a sign from God and the whole world can be read for signs of scriptural parallels. Augustine does not see the world as a sign in that sense- it is a sign of the beauty and importance of the divine creator- but every incident cannot be read as a direct signal to human beings of God's intention with regard to a King or a nation. Augustine in that sense is much closer to us than Cook.

The last point is a point that I cannot answer but am interested in- which is whether these two understandings of miracle (miracle as the marvellous and strange event versus miracle as the breaking of a natural law) have coexisted, how they have evolved and changed. The fact that Augustine believed, like Newton, that the natural laws existed and miracles violated them, suggests there is a history here- but for me that history is still unmapped.

May 02, 2010


The brief for this film was simple. Take some big events: try for as big an event as possible, the downfall of the Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity, the beginnings of European anti-semitism, the demise of ancient philosophy and the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria. Interweave those events with the life of the only female philosopher we know from antiquity- Hypatia of Alexandria- who was slaughtered brutally in the streets by a mob of Christians possibly monks. There you have it, Mr Film Executive, a film that is undeniably significant, undeniably interesting and undeniably important as an allegory for our time. It doesn't take long to find Christians behaving in an exceedingly unchristian way in the modern world, nor does it take an incredibly long time to work out that the anti-intellectualism of the mobs of Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria also have their counterparts in the modern world.

This is a film about fanaticism. A film about fanaticism both Christian and pagan. The pagan fanatics are led by their own priest of Serapis and attack the Christians for an insult to their statues (interestingly far from being an anti-Christian film, I suspect that this pagan priority in attacks is untrue- by the time that Hypatia was alive it was the Christians rather than the pagans who were the aggressors). The pagan fanaticism is the fanaticism of those born to lose: it leads to disaster for the pagans. The first part of the film concentrates on that disaster, as fanaticism as an unwise political choice for a minority. The second part concentrates on the consequence as the Christians led by Cyril persecute first the pagans and then the Jews, driving them out of the city with violence and rage- a process that culminates with the humiliation of the prefect (Orestes, a pupil of Hypatia) and the execution of Hypatia herself.

Much of this is entirely right- Christians were this horrible to others within the Roman Empire: this needs to be said to pre-empt any charge that this film defames ancient Christianity, rest assured that it does not. (Incidentally the ignorance of any idiot that claims the film is about the Catholic church, when Alexandria was never Catholic, never acknowledged the doctrine of the primacy of Rome and the Catholic church was created centuries later, reveals more about the critic than the film). The response of these Christian critics merely demonstrates how little the mentality of some Christians has moved since the ancient world. In some senses the film makes an ironic commentary upon Christianity, in a moving scene a slave boy is converted by seeing the bishop of Alexandria, Theophilius (more could have been made of the fact that he was the uncle of his successor Cyril) read out the sermon on the mount. I do not know if the film makers meant this, but throughout the film those words echoed in my mind, blessed are the meek etc, and the contrast with the behaviour of the clergy and believers on the screen, not to mention the ostentatious ceremonies with which they prayed is stunning. Christianity in general here is not present as Christianity qua Christianity- but as the behaviour of Christians. It is that that the director makes clear has often been immoral, violent, persecutory- he gets the tone of mockery right (some of the insults against the pagan Gods not being able to walk around and save their believers could come straight from Augustine). One odd point struck me: there are moments in the film where some of the Christian characters could make a theological argument against others, but do not use them. What the film demonstrates is how the militant monks embodied Gibbon's aphorism about the Roman Empire, they were the barbarism and religion that brought civilisation crashing down.

When we look at that civilisation though, that is where the film makes some historical errors. I don't want to dwell on them- so lets start with what I admired. I admired the skill with which the director and cast recreated pagan ritual: the statues were possibly even more impressive than those on the screen but they have the look right. There is one wonderful early scene in which you see the streets of Alexandria littered with statues of gods and goddesses: thinking about it that presence of statues is probably one of the biggest changes between an iconophile paganism and an iconoclastic (to different extents) Christian and Islamic religion. They get the shape of the library right, it is what I imagine the ancient library to have looked like, a pentagon with corridors leading off containing scroll after scroll. They get the sense that religion and philosophy were related, knowledge was mystical by the late empire. So Hypatia talks about the perfection of the circle. If the film has a sin, it is to try and turn Hypatia slowly into a rationalist modern, even having her anticipate Kepler's insight about the planets: that is a pity because it makes her less than she was. She was a teacher but not a modern teacher of despiritualised science: rather she was a teacher of mystical mathematical truths. Furthermore we should see her as a moral teacher, when she presents a suitor with a hankerchief containing her menstrual blood and asks him where the beauty is, she was making a point about the corruption of the body. If the film gets the fanatical strangeness of the Christians right, it makes Hypatia too modern and thus by implication makes paganism too modern.

Another flaw in the film which diminishes its impact is its pace. It is incredibly slow. This means that it is unrealistic. If you talk to someone excited by something, they talk quickly, they pause to think about what they have said, they get enthusiastic about ideas and concepts. In this film everyone talks slowly and they don't talk enough. We don't need inspiring music to tell us that Hypatia was a great thinker- she definitely was not a scientist- we need to hear her. Furthermore at points the film concentrates emotionally on characters without showing us their character. I can use Hypatia's father to explain what I mean: we see Hypatia express grief about him but we see very few indications (bar his announcement that her independence is more valuable than marriage) of the relationship between father and daughter. His scenes flash by- a couple of sentences and they are done. This doesn't give us much of an insight into him- but it is true for so many characters and so many ideas, they get a sentence and we move on to the next thing. The film is about the right length but the number of words could rise and the amount of music fall.

Having said all of the above: the film makes a powerful point. Its about fanaticism, possibly about religion too and the way it encourages fanaticism. The strongest impression I was left with, coming out of the movie, was the contradiction between Christian teaching and the behaviour of many Christians. There is one amusing theological point at which a Christian says to another that slaughtering the Jews is right, to forgive, he argues, is Christlike and therefore blasphemous. Plenty of Christians have done an immense amount of good in their time on earth, but plenty of others have lived by the maxim that showing the other cheek, leaving judgement to God and refusing to cast the first stone were declared by Christ for him alone and do not bind them. In that sense the director has created a film in the spirit of Matthew 20:16- he unlike Dosteovsky with the Grand Inquisitor does not draw out the final irony, but it is lurking in the background of his piece.