Friday, September 14, 2007

Julian - The Last Pagan Emperor

Which got me thinking – who will be the last Christian President? Every mythology has its time in the sun, eventually dries up and ends in the dustbin of history. Some have lasted many thousands of years. Judaism, the source religion for both Christianity and Islam, has been around for at least 5,000 years. Others, undocumented through the millennia, have probably lasted much longer than that. And just as Christianity came to upend the Hellenistic traditions approximately 1700 years ago, something will replace Christianity. What will be the mythology that will replace Christianity, Islam and Judaism?

This post is inspired by my reading of “Julian” by Gore Vidal. It was our group reading assignment as a members of the Nonbelieving Literati. It may be the only group I have membership in. It is certainly the only one in which I actively participate. Our task was to read “Julian” and then do an essay on thoughts provoked by the book. One thought was that the group itself is a really good thing for me on a personal level. I have immersed myself in poplular science non-fiction for several years although I was raised on novels – often great novels. Gore Vidal has always been one of my favorite authors but I never got around to this book, written in 1962.

By reading “Julian”, I have reinvigorated my interest in great fiction – and this is a good thing. I don’t intend to discontinue my science, because it’s just so damn fascinating. In my current reading, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, Sean Carroll sums it up for me – “In short, the best science offers the same kind of experience as the best books or films do”. I would just say that additionally you are learning a great deal about who and what we are and what this universe is really all about. But you get quite an education from great novels too, and I’ll continue to mix in some fiction here and there – mostly whenever the maestro gives us a reading assignment.

“Mythology” is more than simply a belief system. It’s the way we tell our collective story, about ourselves, to ourselves and our children. It's a way that we socialize. It’s a uniting force and an explanatory one. When the explanation isn’t working, we re-write (or re-tell), the mythological premise. This has happened time and again, since long before we had a written history. This re-writing is particularly prevalent at the end of empires – at their conquest or absorption by other empires. Long before this happened with empires, it happened with tribes.

Sam Harris had the following observations about past mythologies in a recent article:

“Anyone feeling nostalgic for the "wisdom" of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there's nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to ‘suppress selfishness’ and convey a shared sense of purpose. Of course, the Aztecs weren't the only culture to have discovered ‘human flourishing’ at its most sanguinary and psychotic. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesias, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.”

The Hellenist mythologist of the Greeks and Romans was largely giving way to the new mythology, Christianity, when Julian became emperor of Rome in 361 AD. Julian was the last of the Hellenist emperors and it was his desire, to turn back the relentless tide of, as Julian called them, “the Galileans.” He is known to this day as “Julian, the Apostate.” What a great title!

As an atheist reading this, it was difficult to have full sympathy for Julian, as his mythology seems as ridiculous to me as that of Christians. Still, it appears that the ancient Greek gods were less harmful than the newly accepted Jewish one, and you could hardly help wishing him success. Especially in light of Julians methods. There were no crucifixions or Christians being fed to lions as under earlier Emperors. What he tried to accomplish was done primarily through edict and example.

We are led through this book from three points of view – that of Julian, and of two of his close philosopher friends – Libanius and Priscus. Vidal writes in the genre of historical novel. While it is fiction, he strives for general accuracy of people, places and events – then fills in a story of words and deeds where the history is incompletely recorded. It should be noted that Priscus seems to have been placed there to represent Vidal’s own viewpoint. While Libanius was indeed friend and advisor to the emperor Julian, Priscus (who I feel certain was the hero in the minds of every Nonbelieving Literati!) actually lived about 100 years later. So he was merely a story-telling and point of view vehicle.

Early in the book, Priscus gives us this insight into Julian (as well as into our modern society):

“Yet despite the barbarism which is slowly extinguishing ‘the light of the world,’ we Athenians still pride ourselves on being able to see things as they are. Show us a stone and we see a stone, not the universe. But like so many others nowadays, poor Julian wanted to believe that man’s life is profoundly more significant than it is. His sickness was the sickness of our age. We want so much not to be extinguished at the end that we will go to any length to make conjuror-tricks for one another simply to obscure the bitter, secret knowledge that it is our fate not to be.”

And then Priscus shows us his own atheism, while analyzing the comparative values of Julian’s Mithraist sect and the burgeoning Christianity:

“Between the Mithraic story and its Christian sequel I see no essential difference. Admittedly, the Mithraic code of conduct is more admirable than the Christian. Mithraists believe that right action is better than contemplation. They favor old-fashioned virtues like courage and self-restraint. They were the first to teach that strength is gentleness. All of this is rather better than the Christian hysteria which vacillates between murder of heretics on the one hand and a cringing rejection of this world on the other. Nor can a Mithraist be absolved of sin by a sprinkle of water. Ethically, I find Mithras the best of all the mystery cults. But it is absurd to say it is any more “true” than its competitors. When one becomes absolute about myth and magic, the result can only be madness.”

Will humankind always embrace one supernatural explanation or another? Do we so desperately need to feel that we are uniquely special, that it makes it nearly impossible to accept evolution? Is our species so significant that we can’t see our common-decent relationship with every other living creature? And thus we rely on religion, myth or magic to place us above these things and above death itself? One would hope that this is not the case and the fact that there are apparently hundreds of millions of people in the world who are able to accept our place in the universe, adds to the hope. But the persistence of the myth is also apparently not going away. And so, like all the others before, the myth will change – this time due to a different kind of conquest. The human mind has become more and more sophisticated, scientific and contemplative. What might the “myth” change to?

Clearly with the onward march of knowledge comes a weakening of the current religions – most of which insist upon the literality of their holy books. But even when examining the precepts of the various religions outside the context of “absolute truth” they can still be seen as antiquated. Julian’s other philosopher friend, Libanius had these observations about the Christian way. He speaks from his Hellenist perspective, but it still accurately reflects the Christians:

“From the beginning, the Christians tried to allay man’s fear of death. Yet they have still not found a way to release that element in each of us which demands communion with The One. Our mysteries accomplish this, which is why they are the envy of the Christians and the enduring object of their spite. Now I am perfectly willing to grant that the Christian way is one way to knowing. But it is not the only way, as they declare. If it were, why would they be so eager to borrow from us? What most disturbs me is their curious hopelessness about this life, and the undue emphasis they put on the next. Of course eternity is larger than the brief span of a man’s life, but to live entirely within the idea of eternity is limiting to the spirit and makes a man wretched in his day-to-day existence, since his eye must always be fixed not on this lovely world but on that dark door through which he must one day pass. The Christians are almost as death-minded as the original Egyptians, and I have yet to meet one, even my old pupil and beloved friend Basil, who has ever got from his faith that sense of joy and release, of oneness with creation and delight in what has been created, that a man receives when he has gone through those days and night at Eleusis. It is the meagerness of Christian feeling that disconcerts me, their rejection of this world in favor of a next which is – to be tactful – not entirely certain. Finally, one must oppose them because of their intellectual arrogance, which seems to me often like madness. We are told that there is only one way, one revelation: theirs. Nowhere in their tirades and warnings can one find the modesty or wisdom of a Plato, or that pristine world of flesh and spirit Homer sang of. From the beginning, curses and complaints have been the Christian style, inherited from the Jews, whose human and intellectual discipline is as admirable as their continuing bitterness is limiting and blighting.”

But these observations about Christianity have been made over and over since the Enlightenment, with only modest success so far. This is due, in part, to the fact that telling others that they are wrong tends to drive them deeper into the safety of their belief system. What has brought some people out is a constant interface with the knowledge of science. Humiliation of our brothers and sisters is probably one of the least effective tools at our disposal. Back to Vidal and the words of the great Priscus:

“…victories in argument are useless. They are showy. What is spoken always causes more anger than any silence. Debate of this sort convinces no one. Aside from the jealousies such a victory arouses, there is the problem of the vanquished. I speak now of philosophers. The one who is defeated, even if he realizes at last that he is fighting truth, suffers from having been publicly proved wrong. He then becomes savage and is apt to end by hating philosophy. I would prefer not to lose anyone for civilization.”

We scoff when religious apologists accuse us of making a new religion of science, often by using the presumably derogatory term “scientism”. We give all of the fundamentally correct responses for why science is not faith, and how claiming that it is can only render the very word “religion” meaningless. But perhaps we should consider this as a possible way of transition to a new mythology. Certainly those who work in scientific endeavors can never be equated with the high priests of religion. They make no formal claims of “truth”, and only do the simple(!) work of expanding and clarifying the furthermost edges of our knowledge. However, most of the world is not engaged in science. Most of us are only its beneficiaries. And while we should never treat our reverence for the knowledge accrued by science as a religious dogma, it can be a mythology – in the sense of it being the story of us.

After millions of years of human evolution, we have in just the past 500 years made nearly every advance in every area of learning that has ever been made in all those millions of years! And it really is "we" who have reached these dizzying heights. Think of the following great minds and of their achievements in our exponential pursuit of higher learning – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein (or any of hundreds of others you could add to the list). As incredibly advanced over other members of their own societies as these great thinkers were, they were nonetheless a part and product of those societies and their breakthroughs were made possible by every little aspect of civilization that those societies provided for them. Without the framework of “us”, they could no more have done what they did than Neil Armstrong could have stepped out on to the surface of the moon without America’s space program.

Science is our story – our mythology. It seems that one of the greatest callings of religion has been as an explanation for everything, including what happens to us after death. While science does not explain everything, everything it does explain is elucidated more clearly and accurately than the teaching of any religion that ever existed. It seems certain there is no existence after death and we are going to have to be adults (for our world has moved out of its youth), and accept what is. One thing about death is certain - the only way we will ever know if there is anything else (while here in this life) is through science.

After we explain to the religious that science is not, in their sense, a religion, we should go on to embrace the sobriquet of “Scientism” – seeing the realities of our nature and of the universe, without dogma, without absolutes, always subject to change with new knowledge, and standing in awe-inspiring wonder at what one species, and only one, has been able to accomplish through science.


The Exterminator said...


Really nice essay. So far, this Nonbelieving Literati thing is working out just as I'd hoped. Each of us puts his or her own particular spin on a book of common interest, and comes up with a thought-provoking post.

I particularly love your simple and eloquent: "Science is our story -- our mythology ..." but I think you'd better be prepared to explain what you mean to the Jesus-jumpers -- who would love nothing better than to take that literally.

Thanks for being involved in this launch. I'm proud to be in such articulate company.

John - Evolutionary Middleman said...

Proud to be with you. It was a tremendous idea and you've done a good job selling it. I can't believe the response you've received.

And I take your challenge seriously. I realize the "problem" with calling it our "mythology", but actually that is what science is from the layman's standpoint (not from those actually doing it). The first definition I found for the word "mythology" was

1 : an allegorical narrative

Science is the work of discovery.
Scientism is the allegorical narrative of how that work explains US.

But, yes. It wouldn't matter. They do love to jump.

ordinarygirl said...

I don't think there's anything you can do to keep people from misinterpreting what you write, if they want to. I love your conclusions. I took a peek before I wrote my essay and I have definite overtones of what you wrote.

I earmarked quotes as I was reading. There were so many good passages in the book and it's pleasing to read your choice of different quotes.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

I think our friend, the Slut, said she couldn't abide the character of Julian as written by Vidal. I found him to be somewhat quixotic and enigmatic myself. Almost contradictory. One minute he's making fun of the Christians for their stupid, nonsensical religion, the next he's embracing a stupid, nonsensical religion of his own. Shit or get off the pot, Julian!

But I think Vidal did that intentionally, perhaps to show the irrationality of religion in general. At least, that's what I took out of it.

John, you clearly took some time with your essay, and it shows. Nice work!