Do you know who Paul of Thebes was? Very interesting character, but obviously not very well known….at least in modern times. Some scholars believe he was a totally made-up figure by Jerome, the only early Christian writer mentioning him. Jerome seems to be well-acquainted with that early desert scene in 4th century Egypt and Palestine, so maybe Paul is not fictional. Whatever be the case that story has some very significant and interesting points.
Jerome presents the young Antony, the future legendary hermit and father of Christian hermits, meeting this old bedraggled hermit out in the desert. Jerome tells us that Paul has lived a very quiet, undramatic life in his solitude—this seems to be deliberately depicted in contrast to Athanasius’ picture of Antony and his epic struggles against the forces of darkness. In any case, Paul, meeting a human being for the first time in a long, long while, gently places a few interesting questions before Antony:
Tell me, how fares the human race?
Are new houses being built in the ancient cities?
Whose empire is it now?
Do any yet survive, snared in the delusions of demons?
With this as our “background music” we will now move on to some reflections on our current situation. First of all the pandemic is raging again. As I write this, Pfizer has announced that the first results on their vaccine are positive—they say “there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” Unfortunately this tunnel may be much longer than anyone knows. There are still a lot of unknowns about this virus and this vaccine. One scary possibility is a mutation that would make the virus more virulent as it passes into the mammal world and then back to the human. That’s why they killed millions of mink in Europe when it was discovered that a number of them were infected with the virus. The mink was a perfect “petri dish” for the virus. But apart from all that there are the Trump people! Things could get very ugly in the next few months, and this brings us to the election.
Ok, so Caligula (oops, I mean Trump) was defeated. But, as a number of commentators have pointed out, we are still stuck with “Trumpism,” which shows no sign of going away but is growing. Ok, so I am relieved that we have rejected that paragon of narcissism, that malevolence, that supporter of white supremacy and the gun totters, that propagator of lies and fantasy, etc., but just think, about 70 million people voted for him, almost half of the electorate. They are not about to go away. The country is deeply, deeply divided, and I fear the situation is going to get worse.
Some of the people who voted for Trump are lost in all the bad stuff I just mentioned, but a lot are also basic folk who are themselves very badly deluded: Catholics and Protestants, a surprising number of Hispanics, poorly educated simple white folk who feel like they have been trashed by the system of which Biden is a supporter(and they are not so wrong), and so many others. You have to read this essay from the NY Times about a farming community in Nebraska that voted strongly for Tump:
The title is “He Already Saw the Election as Good vs. Evil”—I can’t get to the story a second time unless I subscribe—you get one free read if you give your email! Anyway, it was Nov. 1, 2020 in the Times and quite revealing. Another story that I was able to get to and along similar lines.
Next on our list of headaches is the Republican Party which has gotten very nasty and just as delusional as their now leader. Vilification and polarization, fear and division, these have been their tactics in the recent decades. And the problem is that they have gained in this election. They have made inroads in the House and look like they will still control the Senate—the two run-offs in Georgia won’t take place until January. They potentially could prove to be supreme obstructionists—and of course there is the “packed” Supreme Court.
But we must not be fooled. All this chaos and turmoil and political and social thrashing about is only the symptoms of a deep and long-term problem. The political divide (and the economic divide, the income inequality) are only the pimples on the communal body. Hard to say; harder still to believe; but we are in much more trouble than any election can cure.
Someone who digs underneath the surface of our popular news and culture and scares the willies out of most people in his dark vision ( or else they just ignore him like Jeremiah and Cassandra….he can’t get published in any of the major media even though he was a Pulitzer Prize winning newsman once with the New York Times). Here are two recent op-ed pieces he wrote; the first one before the election, the second one after the election. Hard to digest these but I think he is mostly right, but even he doesn’t get deep enough in his diagnosis.
That’s why I am not dancing in the street over the seeming Biden victory. Oh yes, he will have a more rational approach to the pandemic, and we won’t have to listen to all that bombastic narcissism; but do not ignore or underestimate the problems and issues that Biden’s presidency will bring. Progressives who hope that he can be nudged in that direction will most likely be disappointed—after all half the country doesn’t “want” medicare-for-all or any other “socialist” program. Joe does not seem like FDR, leading the country into a new vision, but more trying to hold the thing together by compromising and paying off various groups…and maybe alleviating a little bit of the misery…. He has such a bad record in the past that it’s hard for a progressive to feel comfortable with him. I voted for him because there was no choice. (Actually I almost wrote in Paul of Thebes but then I realized the old guy would not have appreciated such an awful suggestion!)
There is a scholar, Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist by training who has written an intriguing book: How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart? Interestingly enough there is a whole field of study now devoted to studying civilizational collapse…you can see a long Wikipedia article about it. Tainter’s main thesis: “Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things. Nearly every one that has ever existed has also ceased to exist, yet understanding disintegration has remained a distinctly minor concern in the social sciences.” He says he’s alarmed at all the signs of disintegration that he finds in the complexity of modern society.”
The agents and causes of decay and collapse are on the one hand internal to a society, in the increasing human confusion which we see co-existing with and perhaps riding within the increasing complexification. And on the other hand the causes of collapse can also come externally, so to say, in an “enemy force,” or more likely from Mother Nature herself. Climate and geology have played a big, big part in the end of many civilizations. (By the way, Biden’s announced plan to reconnect with the Paris Climate Accords sounds good but according to many climate experts the Accords are way too weak to put a brake on the catastrophe down the road.)
But there is still another critical point to consider. More than one political philosopher has pointed out that a society disintegrates when it can no longer produce a leadership adequate to its problems. You can have leaders boasting of their own greatness and/or boasting of the greatness of their country, and this is very common certainly in our history….America, the greatest country on earth. Here I would like to turn to a poem by Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The poem speaks for itself. As Paul of Thebes well knew, the “demons” delude us all into thinking our institutions and structures, our power and wealth, are a permanent reality.
But our reflection is not through yet….there is still another poem and even a more dire insight. It is a poem written by the great Yeats in 1919, “The Second Coming.” The poem was written when the world was traumatized by the slaughter of the first world war and the insanity of it all happening among these supposedly “civilized” nations who were also professing Christianity. Yeats saw deeper and expressed his nightmare eloquently. Here is the poem, and afterwards I borrow, word for word, a section by section commentary written by a dear friend…it is so insightful:
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats begins his meditative poem by looking heavenward.
He sees not unity of God and human, but a real-time dissolution occurring before his very eyes.
The falcon, he says, is gyrating, meaning, having left his hands, and soared high into the sky, it is now turning in circles and whirling down and down, further and further away from the falconer. That trajectory was how a bi-plane would have traced in the sky toward its impending crash once hit by machine gun fire in WWI.
So, the date is 1918.
A year when war was seen not as romantic and heroic, but indeed a “blood-dimed tide.”
And the dissolution of heaven and earth has begun.
That is what Yeats means by “anarchy.”
Now in Homer, the analogue of all Western warrior-culture, blood is also what feeds the spirits of the fallen.
And Yeats, classically educated, fluent in Greek, would have known that analogue.
Of course, that analogue of Homeric blood is filtered thru a knowledge also of the Roman World as the first world empire, whose land was gained by countless human battles, and the later claim of Christianity to have invoked by its writings a world of peace, overcoming that world of Roman war, a peace which spread “everywhere”—”pan” in Greek.
But Yeats sees something different now—a world coated in blood, blood everywhere, and he divides people into two classes—the people who have a realization of how horrible the whole situation is—those who “lack conviction” in the prosecution of war, and those who are “full of passionate intensity,” in other words, brimming over with passion.
The implication is that behind the warrior is merely the beast, and Yeats will expand on this in the next half of the poem.
Yeats considers the beast-warrior-man to be a revelation.
Yeats pretends to look “upward” for a “revelation”—a “Second Coming”—and he mocks himself repeating it for a second time.
And now, like Paul or one of the Prophets, Yeats has a mock vision—not of heaven—but of earth, and what he has really been seeing all the time.
Yeats sees no “new Adam” who is coming—no prefiguration of Christ—the “Spiritus Mundi” of which Yeats speaks is a creature of the earth, and a creature—even more primitive, as a “spiritus,” than the warrior of Homer, the battle-line agmen of ancient Rome, or the ascetic of Christianity in the desert mimicking Christ.
Here is the “spiritus”—it does—like Christ at his baptism—come from the desert—but it is clearly animalistic—it is more like the Sphinx, and not at all like Christ, and this “spiritus” has no human or God-like characteristics, but looks at the world and evaluates it through a beast-mentality. Yeats writes:
“A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”
Yeats further defines the spiritus beast as the physical embodiment of the passion he had mentioned earlier in terms of its “slow moving thighs, and like a Greek auger, Yeats sees that the birds now gyrate and “reel” around the beast.
Are the birds being commanded by the spiritus beast—or are they ready to eat the dead—of WWI and its following “pan-demic”—of H1N1, that also killed 50 to 100 million people, we are left to guess.
The is the world of an even deeper darkness than Homer.
Death is everywhere. Affecting all peoples—as in “pan-demic.
It is a world transformed.
That was the point of Yeats’s vision.
And looking at this world of pandemic death, Yeats’s vision via Greek augery brings us back to the beginning of Western Civilization, which appears to be the theme of his meditation —that is, to give all of us a second look at the origin of Western Civ—what we would call today, “Year Zero.”
And in the last four lines Yeats’s poem comes, we see Yeats’s not only thinks 1919 is bad, but that he knows 1919 is bad because Year Zero—and the very origin of Western Civ – is bad and not what we thought at all.
According to Yeats, in the 20 centuries of sleep, we slept as beasts—we had a “stony sleep,” the sleep of the “spiritus mundi.”
And in order to unpack the events of 1919—in a way better than any newspaper editorial—Yeats tells us that we had been looking at something all along, and yet not really believed our eyes at what we were seeing.
We are seeing who we are—for the first time.
We were baby beasts being rocked into a nightmarish existence for the past 20 centuries, and all that Christianity and Judaism did for Western civ and human beings within its framework was to “vex” us awake and help us grow into our true beast-nature, earth-bound killers who live as our own pitiless sun, that’s our “darkness dropping” on the earth.
We are the beast, whose birth hour has come, moving beast-like to the birthplace of the man in the desert, who had no affect on us whatsoever.
And that is 1919.
But somewhere out there is a lonely but peaceful hermit, under the starry sky, with a wolf and a squirrel in his neighborhood, listening to the wind in the trees, and silently wondering, whose empire is it now and how fares the human race?