Athens, Jerusalem, New York City (an essay)
Wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
—Lehi, 2 Nephi 2:11, The Book of Mormon
In Book XIX of his Inferno, Dante and Virgil come across the burning soles of Pope Nicholas III. Dante writes, “I stood as does the friar who confesses / the foul assassin who, fixed last, head down, / calls back the friar, and so delays his death” (v.49-51). The metaphor reverses Dante and his pagan guide to a place of evangelical authority while naming the Pope—the ultimate evangelical authority in the world—a sinner and assassin. I’m not sure what that means. But it at least shows that Dante was dealing firsthand with the problem of the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem that Tertullian had written on a thousand years before. What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Dante puts Athens (represented by himself and Virgil) in the place of judge over Jerusalem (represented by the Pope) which does not seem like an answer Tertulian would’ve expected. Maybe he was thinking of the corruptibility of Jerusalem, how it transgressed its own faith many times, how it, like Athens, killed its most important philosopher and prophet—and even worse than Athens, killed its God incarnate. The differences between Athens and Jerusalem to Dante seem much less drastic than Tertullian had painted them.
The moral, cultural, religious, and historical differences between the two traditions are painfully obvious, but despite these differences, both traditions independently came to similar fates and murdered some of their best. And both have lately come to equal fates, having been combined into one European culture we broadly call ‘Western Civilization’—their original civiliations destroyed, their traditions left in the hands of other countries, other civilizations, bloodlines not their own. Still, this is better than the fate of, say, the traditions and culture of the American Indians: to be nearly annihilated and forgotten. So what will be the fate of Western Civilization, the heritage of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman thought? It’s impossible to say, but it seems that anytime the constituents of Western Civilization—either the Judeo-Christian tradition or the Greco-Roman tradition—were on the verge of eating themselves, a healthy exposure to the other was able to rescue and preserve (or recreate) their meaningfulness for future generations.
Earlier in Inferno, Dante compares himself to Paul, not only the poster-child, but the original producer of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman mash-up. He was “an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee,” yet also a Roman citizen writing and preaching in Greek to the Greeks and probably Latin to the Romans (Philippians 3:5). But just as important to my argument is the time in which he lived. Jerusalem was only a few years away from being destroyed by Rome, and Jewish society itself had become corrupt; on the other hand, the Roman Empire was in its golden age, preserving much of the culture and traditions of Ancient Greece. Paul was the genius who preserved Judeo-Christian tradition by appealing to the other world, to the gentiles. He went to Athens and preached from Areopagus, not with hebraisms and references to his own ‘true’ culture, but by referencing the Greeks’ paganism, their shrine “to the unknown god,” and even by quoting one of their poets: “As certain also of your poets have said” (Acts 17:23, 28). It was his traveling, his insisting to the Greeks and Romans that they consider this other culture, its “unknown god,” and follow its ways, that not only saved the souls of many pagans, but saved the ideas of Christianity and its Hebraic roots.
However, it took some time for Christianity to emerge as a robust culture because the Roman world resisted—it was at its height. Emperor Augustus had just carved out his list of deeds to the world in stone. Some three centuries later, Saint Augustine would write a very different kind of list of deeds in his Confessions, but before that time the dynamics of the world would change drastically: the empire would deteriorate, and Christianity grow—good news for them. Interestingly, an early theory about the cause of Rome’s fall was that Christianity itself caused it, and that wouldn’t be a big surprise: why shouldn’t Christians have been resentful and destructive toward the Greco-Roman world for how they and their Jewish cultural ancestors had been treated by empires ever since the Israelite captivity in Egypt?
Yet, if we’re assigning blame for the burning of Rome, I’m not sure it ought to fall squarely on the Christians’ shoulders. Rome’s declining morals since the killing of the Gracchi Brothers and the general fall of the Republic were undoing the civilization; if I may be allowed some wild speculation, it seems to me that Christianity with its rigid morals actually came at the precise moment to save the Empire, if it would have accepted them early on instead of waiting until the civilization was nearly in shambles to legalize Christianity. I don’t think it was the clash of the two cultures and the winning out of Christianity that caused the downfall, but the Romans’ tendency to look at themselves in the mirror instead of engaging with outsiders. I have no evidence to support that claim besides Ovid’s having written in his Metamorphoses the story of Narcissus: the beautiful boy who falls in love with his own reflection, and from that “as hoar frost melts before the warm morning sun, so does he, wasted with love [of himself], pine away, and is slowly consumed by its hidden fire. No longer has he that ruddy colour mingling with the white, no longer that strength and vigour, and all that lately was so pleasing to behold” (Book III, 485-495). Ovid as poet and social critic (I’m proposing) reimagines his own society as someone so beautiful that he loses his own beauty and life through nothing but self-absorption. Maybe if Rome had been willing to look somewhere other than itself, say, towards Christianity, it actually would have been revitalized instead of pining away like Narcissus.
In any case, by Augustine’s time hostility between the two cultures had grown from the intellectual curiosity exhibited by the pagans of Paul’s time. A ‘good Christian’ now ought to resist Greco-Roman culture (unlike Paul), and it would be seen as pious to look down on one’s own favorite boyhood poem, as Augustine tried to do on The Aeneid, confessing that “as a boy I did wrong in liking the empty studies and hating the useful” (1008). It was just this transition of feeling that nearly killed the classical world. Augustus’ deeds were already being forgotten, the empire already practically fallen; in only a few more years it would pull out of Britain and its other distant provinces and slowly shrink into itself. To get off their feet Christians had needed Rome, but after its fall they added transepts to the Roman basilica and points to the Roman arch, creating the medieval cathedral and setting themselves apart from the Romans. Additionally, the medievals created amazing works of art, Christian works of art, which moved far from the aesthetic of the Greeks or the Romans—works like Duccio’s Maestà, for instance, with its ignoring of real space and time and scientific principles and its focus on heavenly space, intense detail, and religious devotion. Yet again, it seems that no culture can survive in a Petri dish, not even Christianity.
If it had been possible for it to perpetually flourish and reproduce on its own, we may not have had this class nor many remnants of the Greco-Roman world. But, as Dante points out over and over again in his Divine Comedy, by the late 1200’s and early 1300’s the Christian world, the world of Jerusalem, was getting corrupt, eating itself up, and dying. Supposedly righteous men in places of authority were stealing, murdering, and raping; the church was becoming an institution of the world. I don’t know what led Florentines to set up the ancient world as judge of themselves like Dante did, but it worked. By combining (as Paul had) Greco-Roman thought and mythology with Judeo-Christian thought and theology, Dante and others began pulling Christianity out of the dark place it was rapidly descending to while also resurrecting the classical world. The Sienese put Hermes (as “contemporary of Moses”) on the floor of the Siena Cathedral saying to priest and ‘infidel’ alike, “Take up both the Law and Letters, O Egyptians.” That was the Renaissance. It wasn’t a lessening of Christian faith—that would come later—it was a realization that the closing in of one culture on itself is never good, no matter how ‘true’ that culture is. Geniuses of the time like Michelangelo, got much of their artistic force from the interesting combinations they were able to make between Judeo-Christian traditions and Greco-Roman traditions, like that shown by that artist’s David.
But the creative combination of two cultures isn’t really unique either to the Renaissance artists or to Paul, is it? Greco-Roman culture is itself a mash-up of two opposing cultures. When Virgil saw his world of the Roman Republic coming to an end—that world of outstanding manliness and courage and honor—it was to Greece he reached. The Aeneid combines Greek and Roman worlds just as much as The Divine Comedy combines Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman. And in a related but slightly different way Jesus and his evangelists, insofar as they targeted Jews, also, as they saw their civilization crumbling, looked to their ancients and combined and interwove them with the new Christian ideas. So maybe there’s nothing inherent about Judeo-Christian culture and Greco-Roman culture that makes them so productive, maybe it just as well could have been Muslim culture and Buddhist culture, had the historical circumstances been different. But then, who knows what would be, if things were different?
We ourselves are not in such a different position from any of these. America is far away in both time and space from its cultural ancestors of Renaissance and Medieval Europe (as most of Europe was from Rome, and as Rome was from Greece, and as Greece was from Egypt). We’re running fast ahead of all that. Western Civilization has become in the minds of moderns effectively an entity unto itself, the tension dying, the fires going out, as if after two millenia of productive conflict the two things have finally become assimilated. Yet both still lose, in a way, if they have no contrary to go up against. If we can learn anything from those who came before, if we are willing to look outside our mirror, we might find some kind of contrary to our Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman culture. Maybe anything will do, as long as its big enough and influential enough to put up a fight, but it’s hard to say that any such thing exists anymore in the increasingly homogenous global culture we live in. Alternatively, we might end up saying with Narcissus, “I would he that is loved might live longer; but as it is, we two shall die together in one breath” (Book III, 471-473).