Sunday, May 24, 2015

Aurelian Kills Followers of Jesus

During the years from 30 AD to 313 AD, the majority of the Jesus followers were located somewhere within the Roman Empire. The imperial government was bent on extinguishing the new belief, and persecuted the Jesus followers, arresting, jailing, beating, and killing them by the thousands and by the tens of thousands.

Why did the Roman officials feel so threatened by the Jesus followers? One reason, perhaps, is that they misunderstood this new group.

The words of Jesus included terms like ‘kingdom’ and ‘king’ and ‘judge’ and others which were prima facie political vocabulary. Jesus had used them, however, in a metaphorical sense. He claimed to have, e.g., a kingdom which was ‘not of this world.’ He was referring to an invisible and metaphysical kingdom.

Roman bureaucrats had no inclination or patience for parsing and interpreting the words of suspicious groups. The Jesus followers seemed like a potential political power movement, and should be eliminated.

Adding to the tension was the fact that the Jesus followers not only worshipped their own God, but that they refused to also worship the Roman gods. For the Romans, worship was not merely a personal preference, but rather a public civic gesture of national participation.

The importance of this civic religion to the Romans can be seen in the fact that they attributed sustained national defense to the Roman deities. The fact that many of the Romans didn’t believe in these gods and goddesses was not relevant to the fact that the Romans saw this communal practice as essential to the fabric of society.

The failure to honor the Roman deities was, in the eyes of the Romans, not a spiritual violation but rather a political one. The Roman officials didn’t care if you believed in their gods - because many of these officials themselves didn’t believe - but they cared greatly if you were willing to participate in communal festivities. Failure to thus participate was a rejection of the community. Historian Ernest Gottlieb Sihler writes:

This aloofness of the Christians, as we clearly see, was officially and by the foremost representative of Rome in that province branded as civil or political treason or sedition, treason in the underlying convictions, sedition in the practice of religious dissent and non-conformity with the rites of the commonwealth. When in 271 A.D. the Marcomanni had invaded northern Italy, the Emperor Aurelian sent orders to Rome to have the Sibylline books consulted, and the Senate subsequently recorded its official conviction, that the gods had aided the state in recognition of the sacrifices prescribed by the Sibylline records. Aurelian had inherited from his mother the cult of the Sun. To it at Rome he dedicated a huge temple with anniversary games and on one of his own coins antiquarians still read: “The Sun, Lord of the Roman Empire.”

Aurelian managed, according to most sources, to restore a level of stability to empire after it threatened to break into three separate empires in the mid 200s. He became emperor in 270 AD and solidified imperial unity.

The civic religion was part of Aurelian’s unification program. He instituted universal worship of the Roman sun god. Citizens were free to worship any of the other Roman deities alongside this sun god, but some acknowledgement of Sol Invictus was mandatory.

Aurelian’s effort to unify Roman society by means of civic religion intensified the already harsh persecution of Jesus followers.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Edmund Burke: Freedom, Prosperity, and Ethical Reflection

The thoughts and writings of Edmund Burke contain a complexity which prevents them from being simply categorized. While some historians want to dismiss him as a relativist, and other find him to be the founder of modern political conservatism, the reality is much more nuanced.

From the very beginning, Burke was not easily pigeonholed. His mother was an Irish Catholic, while his father was Anglican whose English family had settled in Ireland several generations earlier.

Burke cheered on the American Revolution of 1776, but despised the French Revolution of 1789, after his analysis found the two movements to be based on utterly different premises.

One of Burke’s theses was that tradition merits respect, and that those who respect it will find it advantageous. Burke did not want men to be slaves to tradition, but neither did he want them to cast it aside thoughtlessly - as he saw the leaders of the French Revolution do.

Burke predicted the outcome of the French Revolution, although he did not live to see it. He foresaw that, having demolished the monarchy, they revolutionaries would proceed to experiment with a series of various governmental forms, and to be satisfied with none of them.

Likewise, Burke criticized the British officials in India who did not stop to study or understand the traditions of the Hindus. They missed, Burke saw, a chance to decide judiciously which of them to keep.

In the course of reviewing William Byrne’s book about Burke, Daniel Foster writes:

A reform-minded, pragmatic British MP, he had expressed sympathy for the American Revolution, worked on behalf of the oppressed Catholics in Ireland, and stridently opposed the Crown’s imperial policies in India. So Thomas Paine, who’d assumed he had a natural ally in Burke, was perhaps understandably taken aback by Burke’s pique at the revolution in France in 1789, and his famed Reflections on the same. Similarly, though Burke was a Whig during most of his parliamentary career, he counted no less a figure than Samuel Johnson — who had called Whiggism “the negation of all principle” and japed that “the first Whig was the Devil” — as his good friend and admirer. Burke despised the programmatic fixity of “metaphysicians,” but wrote a treatise on aesthetics that influenced the young Immanuel Kant.

One way of understanding Burke’s hypothesis is that political liberty is dependent on personal self-discipline. Governments are tempted, or forced, to impose regulation on public and private life when citizens fail to conduct themselves rationally and ethically.

Burke was no anarchist, but he would agree with James Madison that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” From that axiom, Burke concludes that the closer men are, in their behavior, to angels, the less regulation the government will want or need to impose on them.

Burke encourages, then, a social and cultural structure which will save citizens from regulatory tyranny by encouraging appropriate behavior. Daniel Foster notes:

Ben Franklin wrote in 1787, a year of some moment, that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” In many ways, avoiding the latter consequence was the central preoccupation of the Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, a Franklin contemporary.

The French Revolution, because it sought to destroy not only the government, but also the social and cultural order, was doomed to end in tyranny. The destruction of social and cultural structure will leave a vacuum. That vacuum will necessitate, or tempt, a government to impose order.

Thus, a revolution initiated as quest for freedom ended in a government whose totalitarian tendencies were limited only by the technology of the time. Foster continues:

There is much going on here. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Burke saw the substitution of a cold and unmoored rationalism, novel in the worst sense of the word, for the body of mores and morals that had long held French civil life together.

Burke’s task, then, is to find a formula by which the traditional structures of society and culture can be reinforced so that the imposition of governmental regulations can be relaxed. A civilization with maximal socio-cultural edifice can enjoy minimal governmental intervention.

To this end, Burke encourages what he calls ‘prejudice.’ This word merits examination. Many readers in the early twenty-first century, shaped by several decades of debate about civil rights in the United States, have associated this word with injustice, racism, and other unpleasant phenomena. But in Burke’s day - he wrote this particular text in 1790 - the word had different connotations.

By ‘prejudice,’ Burke meant something along the lines of developing a moral instinct or refining and training one’s ethical judgment. By ‘prejudice,’ Burke meant bringing one’s education - one’s knowledge of tradition - to inform one’s judgment.

Between 1790 and 2015, the word ‘prejudice’ has changed its connotation significantly, and even its denotation somewhat. By ‘prejudice,’ Burke is asking the reader not to make decisions in a vacuum, not to make uninformed decisions, but rather to inform one’s decisions by the inherited wisdom of tradition. Daniel Foster phrases it this way:

Burke understands our moral faculty as an admixture of reason and sentiment. Healthy judgments of right and wrong come from an application of what he repeatedly calls “prejudices” — instincts, habits, virtues culturally inherited — aided by reason. White papers, economic models, and graduate seminars get you only so far. The rest requires the wisdom of “nations and … ages” (Burke’s words) that is all too often dismissed as (our words) “the conventional wisdom.”

Studying and internalizing one’s cultural heritage equips one to make ethical decisions. To discard, as the French Revolution did, social tradition creates a vacuum in which every decision must be made ex nihilo and ab initio. One is forced, morally speaking, to perpetually reinvent the wheel. If one must reinvent the wheel several times a day, then one will sometimes get it wrong.

Discarding all tradition, one throws the individual, stripped of all culture, intellectually naked and unequipped into a sea of moral dilemmas. Faced with the need to make decisions about what is permissible, what is obligatory, and what is forbidden - incest, prostitution, polygamy, slavery, defamation, libel, slander, greed, selfishness - the individual is forced to undertake a long and arduous moral inquiry, which at the least mires society in endless moral debate, and at worst creates endless pitfalls for making bad decisions.

By analogy, we do not ask a nurse or a physician to begin with a study of all known chemical elements when a solution is needed to sterilize medical instruments. We have already on hand a knowledge of which substances meet that need, and we have supplies of such substances. Likewise, we do not ask the individual to begin a thorough examination of all possible ethical axioms when faced with a practical decision in daily life. We have a supply of such things already on hand. Burke himself writes:

Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.

Burke argues that many different aspects of civilization owe their strength to inherited cultural tradition. Literature, he argues, depends on its predecessors - even that literature which makes its claim that it is a sharp break from the past.

Business and economics, Burke asserts, is no mere application of algebraic rules, but rather also depends on a social heritage. A thriving commercial environment, which offers income and opportunity freely, fairly, and equally to all its citizens, is possible only on the foundation of a cultural tradition.

Thus the French Revolution not only, in its attempt to create more freedom, ended up destroying freedom, but also, in its attempt to create prosperity and opportunity, ended up destroying economic opportunity for the lower classes. Burke does not criticize the noble desires of the French Revolution, but rather points out that its methods will bring about the precise opposite of those desires. Burke writes:

If, as I suspect, modern letters owe more than they are always willing to owe to ancient manners, so do other interests which we value full as much as they are worth. Even commerce, and trade, and manufacture, the gods of our economical politicians, are themselves perhaps but creatures; are themselves but effects, which as first causes, we choose to worship. They certainly grew under the same shade in which learning flourished. They too may decay with their natural protecting principles.

Burke’s vision is, then, one which empowers the individual to make ethical choices, and which one creates commercial prosperity accessible to all classes. Burke’s vision, unlike the failed French Revolution, is based on the solid tradition of cultural heritage.

Any endeavor toward freedom, ethical maturity, and economic opportunity will not only fail, but bring about its opposite - tyranny, moral confusion, and poverty - if it is not based in the inherited traditions of civilization.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Rome: Imperial Instability

Perhaps one mystery about the Roman Empire is not why it fell, but why it ever stood in the first place. In contrast to the Roman Republic, the empire contained within its very structure, or lack thereof, the seeds of its own destruction.

This inherent instability was crystallized in the question of succession. Because the empire was structured around the empty pretense of continuing the republican form and procedure, no clear procedure for, or line of, succession was codified.

The result was a built-in motive for assassinations, and an increased likelihood of power struggles, if not civil wars, between competing pretenders to the throne.

That there was never a smooth transition of power, and that an emperor ever died a natural death, is something of a marvel in these circumstances.

The system did apparently work to a limited extent for the first five emperors, whom historians treat together as the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. Of these first five, one was indisputably assassinated: Caligula. Nero committed suicide in order to avoid assassination. Of the remaining three - Octavian, Tiberius, and Claudius - the evidence is ambiguous as to whether their deaths were natural or contrived.

Despite the dubious causes of death, the mechanisms, if improvised, for the transitions of power functioned relatively smoothly, up until the death of Nero in 68 A.D.

After Nero’s death, Rome lived through “the year of four emperors,” as it is routinely called, and problem of succession emerged as one of the clear weaknesses of the imperial government.

This tumultuous pattern of succession would continue for many years, interrupted occasionally by bits of stability. Historian Ernest Gottleib Sihler describes the situation among the emperors of the early third century:

Caracalla, the cruel elder son of Septimius Severus, perished through Macrinus, commander of the Imperial Guard, in 217 A.D. In the very next year this short-lived Emperor was in turn slain while fleeing from the unspeakable Elagabalus, priest of the Sun and incarnation of every possible form of sexual depravity. This monster in turn was killed by his own praetorians after the world had endured him for four years, in 222 A.D. A nobler youth succeeded, known in history as Alexander Severus, but he, too, was done to death by his own troops, on the Rhine, in 235 A.D.

That the empire functioned for nearly five centuries is perhaps due to the efficiency of the civil service. The bureaucrats at the middle and lower levels kept the system running.

The instability in the succession process was matched by instability caused by powerful tribes who threatened the borders of the empire. The whole of these two problems was more their sum.

The attacking tribes created a need for a loyal and devoted military to defend the empire. But given the ambiguity about the emperor’s claim to sovereignty, such dedication was more difficult to find, instill, or call forth.

Ultimately, the emperors could rely only on the raw assertion of power to back up their claims to sovereignty. As long as they maintained the appearance of republican government - the senate met regularly throughout the centuries of the empire, even though its true power was microscopic - there could be no talk of dynastic succession or divine right. The emperors would also not tolerate the thought of being in any way confirmed or elected by the senate.

While the senate did formally declare some of the emperors to be emperor, this was again merely a formality for the sake of appearance.

Over the centuries of the empire, as Christianity went from being a ruthlessly persecuted underground movement to a legally accepted and acknowledged part of Roman society, the cultural impact of belief also impacted the power structure.

Historians diverge on the question of how the new faith affected Roman civilization: did it strengthen it or weaken it? Professor Sihler writes:

After this the emperors, one and all, were simply military pretenders, creatures of their own legions. None of them succeeded in establishing a dynasty. Persians, Goths, Sarmatians, Franks, Alemanni, began to overrun the frontier provinces of the Empire, the integrity of which was more and more threatened by its vastness. At the same time the inner unity and loyalty of the subjects were felt by the Roman officials to be gravely impaired by the aloofness of the religious sect ever growing at the cost of the idolatrous nations - felt perhaps by some statesmen of Rome to be a state within the state - the Christian church, an element of disintegration.

On the one hand, as Sihler notes, the followers of Jesus were perhaps at times less inclined to invest themselves fully in imperial power struggles and political machinations. On the other hand, the early Christians were less likely to seek power and initiate self-aggrandizement campaigns.

Finally, after the reign of Constantine, Christianity was given a recognized and legal status, and under the subsequent Christian emperors, Rome’s older polytheistic paganism was tolerated alongside Christianity. By ushering in an era of religious toleration, Roman unity may have been threatened by religious diversity, but energy and resources were not wasted in efforts to suppress or exterminate any one faith.

The net impact of Christianity on Rome, then, is ambiguous, or at least disputable. In any case, it was overshadowed by succession problems and by threats from external nations, among other challenges faced by the empire.