Author: N. Dass

Modernity And Freedom – A Paradox?

Can one be modern and also free? There is a paradox here that bears examination. Modernity implements specific conditions (limitless progress and expanding production of goods, both fueled by relentless consumption). These conditions are determined by the grand trinity of capitalism, namely, economics, technology and science, each of which is said to be the guarantor of the summum bonum.

Life thus becomes a continual negotiation with processes of acquisition, not for necessities but for indulgence. This is the consequence of surplus, where gluttony is a virtue, and obesity its mark. Such consumption and production of goods also requires elaborate boundaries, which are the bureaucracies and hierarchies that dictate how we are to live and what we are to do. In such a vast machinery, what use freedom?

But modernity also creates problems that it cannot solve. For example, the packaging of consumer goods turns into highly sophisticated garbage that neither nature nor mankind can safely undo. And since countries are supposed to be run like efficient, profitable companies, politics sallies forth to solve all the problems of life. This leaves education rudderless, so that it can neither be instrumental nor idealist, thus devolving into a bureaucracy to manage the young.

Further, the refusal of God necessitates the bettering of mankind, down to biology. This turns society into an ever-expanding mechanism of profitable manipulation, that is, progress. Such manipulation of what it means to be human leads to tribalism (packaged as diversity and pluralism), which the strongest boundary of all. Such problems have no real solutions – and thus any critique offered can never get past describing all that has gone wrong (aka, the thriving outrage industry).

In the meanwhile, there is limitless expansion and profit, which now demands that the resources of the entire planet be controlled by monopolies. And when these resources themselves become insufficient, there lies the exploitation of neighboring planets (the key purpose of space exploration). Such is modernity. What function can freedom possibly serve in such a vast engine?

This ultimately leads to another problem – that of freedom itself. What does it mean to be free in modernity? Is it simply unhindered self-expression? Unfettered thought and speech? If so, then such unconstraint runs smack into the boundaries of consequence and human rights, and thus fritters away. Everyone knows how to repeat the mantra – that words and actions have consequences and must be used with great responsibility. What does modernity need more?

Human rights, responsibility, or freedom? There might be the jurisdictional approach of pegging freedom as a right (such as, the First Amendment in the United States), but this merely creates another boundary, which still must contend with all others (responsibility, rights, justice). Since freedom has no purpose in modernity, it can be easily defused through legal and political interpretation. Statutes are nothing more than agreements and are easily denied or broken.

Next comes a far trickier issue. Is freedom simply anarchy? No rules, no judgment, no boundaries – Paul Feyerabend’s injunction of “anything goes” run rampant? Or, must we take Nietzsche to heart and “live dangerously,” forever fashioning our own limits, our own values, our own laws – to become Uebermenschen? Such freedom, like modernity, also creates problems that it cannot solve. Indeed, what are people demanding when they cry, “Freedom!”?

The freedom from want is far different from the desire to speak one’s mind unhindered. Wittgenstein is correct – the world of the poor is different from the world of the rich, because indulgence can never be the same as necessity. In this context, that peculiar phrase, “the marketplace of ideas” (wrongly attributed to Mill) is often bandied about. The logic of modernity is obvious here. The wise consumer (informed by industry information) browses a plethora of products and chooses what appeals.

Those that favor this adage do so out of a belief that the marketplace offers the surest guarantee of freedom – the individual’s ability to make the right choice. This trust in the wisdom of the consumer is not only naïve but anti-freedom. The consumer buys not to express freedom, but to satisfy desire. Because modernity does not need freedom, for most consumers freedom is made undesirable and will never be bought – rant as its hawkers may.

The marketplace will promote the products that favor it – and it will destroy all competition. Those that advocate a “marketplace of ideas,” therefore, cannot complain that they are being censored – for the modus vivendi of capitalism is never fairness in the marketplace but dominance of the marketplace. Modernity is all about control which, again, makes freedom pointless.

Where does all this lead us? When providence was eliminated from life, it was supposed to bring about a never-ending expansion of self-determination. Again, the logic of modernity and the marketplace strategically deployed – the belief being that if you remove barriers to trade, all trade will flourish. Likewise, nothing could hold humanity back once it got free of old superstitions.

However, the variety of determination available to humanity has proven to be limited. Human potentiality hits a brick wall in human gluttony. Humanity will always be Icarus. Modernity seeks to blunt the ensuing disappointment by one rather powerful strategy – diversion (or, more consumption). In the end, the pampered human body considers freedom to be a hindrance, like the superstitions of old.

But if freedom is still deemed to have any value, it must break free of modernity and its agendas of physical determinism, which are concerned with more barriers (especially political utopias). Neither should freedom be described as a wild free-for-all, which too is a version of physical determinism. Instead, freedom can only be achieved when it is once again held as a process of ethics. Until that is clarified, any call for, and pursuit of, freedom will be illusory because it will only be a further expansion of modernity.

The words of Elizabeth Anscombe serve as a reminder of what freedom ought to be: “My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory. The truth of physical indeterminism is then indispensable if we are to make anything of the claim to freedom.”

Freedom may begin when we realize that it is the by-product of ethics.

The photo shows, “In the Train Compartment,” by Paul Gustav Fischer, painted in 1927.

Restarting The Engine Of Christianity

Christian scholarship is rare in the context of current university disciplines. Strong is the myth that the basic tenets of the Christian faith belong to that “childish” phase of human history when people were credulous and superstitious, lorded over by a cruel, avaricious church that used ignorance and violence as a means of control. The go-to reference for all this imagined savage theocracy is the medieval era. This myth is deep-seated in the Western mind (thanks to the Protestant Black Legend) – and, despite many worthy efforts, it remains well-entrenched. Myths serve many purposes. This one reifies progressivism, which is the religion of modernity.

But there was also a time when unchristian scholarship was unimaginable, because the life of the mind was aligned with eternity. The abandonment of eternity by academia (the greatest tragedy) unmoored learning from its historical mission – which was to provide an eternal purpose to life by way of reason. This was once called the life of the mind. Education has now begun its Wandering in the Desert.

In all this aridity, it is refreshing to find a spring of Christian scholarship yet living, in the form of a learned and profound book. This is Rachel Fulton Brown’s Mary and the Art of Prayer. The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought. Given that this book is deeply Christian and rigorously scholarly, its reception will be problematic. Some may find in it a heuristic for recouping the feminine in the medieval past, in the person of the Virgin Mary. Others will quibble about this or that source material, or even the exclusion or inclusion of this or that scholar. And, the sad Protestant-Roman Catholic divide will continue to use Mary to mark out difference. Indeed, the Virgin is unimaginable for Protestants once Christmas is over; while for Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, Christianity itself is unimaginable without her. If truth is the goal of scholarship, then scholarship had better first know what truth actually is. Any sort of materialistic construct is incapable of truth, because all it can do is demonstrate cause and effect (fact). This is only the first step, because the fullness of truth also needs purpose. The question, “Why?” needs an answer. Once facts find their purpose, truth is at last obtained.

Fulton Brown offers truth, by successfully tearing away the façade of causes (i.e., feminism) that now distorts so much of education and offering instead eternity. Thus, her book is highly contentious and highly important, and consequently, it will be ignored, dismissed, criticized, found wanting, and even declared to be not scholarly at all. Regardless, the life of the mind runs deeper than the shallow advocacies of professional educators. This is why the majority of academic writing is worthy only for obscure journals that nobody reads. In contrast, Fulton Brown’s book is careful, meticulous, profound, deeply learned – and accessible – and it must be read by all those interested in the history of big ideas.

The book is best described as a meticulously woven tapestry of medieval faith, spiritual discipline, history and natural theology, whereby medieval Christians sought completion (or harmony, as Plato and even Aristotle understood it) – which was the instantiation of divine grace in creation. To cultivate the mind meant leading the soul to salvation.

Fulton Brown demonstrates this process adroitly. Her premise is unique and intriguing – that the Virgin Mary was the dynamic of early and medieval Christianity, in whom meaning itself was determined: “…Mary was the mirror of the Divinity; she was the model of mystical illumination and the vision of God, the Queen of the Angels and the Mother God, as like to her Son as it is possible for a creature to be, enthroned beside him in heaven and absorbed in the contemplation of the Divine.”

Thus, Mary was not some incidental figure thrown in beside the manger and then at the foot of the cross – but that she was the very “logic” of Christianity – for how is the Word (Logos) to be made flesh, if not through the womb? And, therefore, unlike any other human being, Mary also must fulfill the law and the prophets, like her Son. As Rachel Brown brilliantly demonstrates, this summation is not some medieval fantasy, dreamt up by monks, who needed to come up with a “Christianish” figure to replace the supposed “wide-spread cult” of the “Mother Goddess” (this academic fantasy, an invention of Marija Gimbutas, has finally been debunked). Instead, devotion to Mary is as old as Christianity itself – and, like Jesus, Mary’s presence in the Old Testament was widely known, acknowledged and understood, that is, until the Reformation brought on historical amnesia (the blinkers of sola scriptura).

To show the antiquity of Marian devotion, Fulton Brown uses Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology that has uncovered continuity from Judaism to early Christian piety. This, of course, follows Christ’s direction on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 25-27). Therefore, the Virgin is the Ark of the Covenant, the Tree of Life, Zion, the Burning Bush, Jacob’s Ladder, the Temple and the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, the Holy Wisdom, the Object of the Song of Songs, the Chalice, the True Bread of Heaven, the Rod of Jesse, the Gate of Ezekiel, the Lily of the Valley, and so forth. In short, all those descriptions whereby God allows human access to Himself. It was Albertus Magnus who carefully traced the many references to Mary in the Old and New Testaments, in his classic work, the Biblia Mariana.

But how do we know that this is not some invention of Albertus Magnus, or some other monk? How do we know that devotion to Mary has always been at the heart of early Christianity? Very simply, because the first church at Jerusalem venerated the Virgin (per Dom Thierry Maertens, who has studied this subject extensively). This veneration is present in the two credal confessions – that of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD, and then that of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 AD, in which Mary was recognized as the Theotokos, the “God-Bearer,” or the “Mother of God.” As Rachel Brown observes: “She was the one who made the Lord visible to the world, clothing him with flesh as he passed through the veil, magnifying his glory as he came forth from the womb. Mary was the one who, harmonizing heaven and earth, scripture and human understanding, made it possible to discern God.”

Thus, medieval Christianity was neither a perversion nor a corruption of some “pure,” first-century Christianity (as the Reformers always imagined, without any historical evidence). It is also often assumed that Saint Paul’s epistles say nothing about Mary. But even this is not true, since the epistles do not deny the virgin birth of Jesus; and Paul does write that deeply Marian passage in Galatians 4:4-6, in which the entire mystery of God becoming man is summarized, a process in which Mary is essential.

In effect, the medieval veneration of Mary had an ancient precedent in Marian devotion in Jerusalem. There is no early Church, nor early Christianity, without Mary – because Mary was the “Mother of the Word,” as Fulton Brown aptly observes. Whether medieval men and women were aware of this antiquity is immaterial. For example, the core vocabulary of the English language goes back to the Bronze Age (and perhaps even earlier); and English-speakers are largely ignorant of this antiquity. But such unfamiliarity takes nothing away from the actual history of the English language.

For those who might imagine that medieval Christianity has nothing to do with the first-century Church, an appeal to basic logic would be necessary. First, the faith itself depends upon events which are all based in the first-century. Second, the epistles of Saint Paul go back to within a few decades of Jesus Himself, and they contain various pre-Pauline creeds and hymns that come from within a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thus, for those trying to prove disjunction as “normal” in history would need to disprove the first-century context in all of the New Testament – which was the very same Scripture that the faithful read in the Middle Ages. Therefore, how could medieval Christians not help being part of first-century confessional reality? Again, it matters not at all whether they knew their faith to be first-century (and earlier).

But to be fair, when the medieval mind imagined the world of Christ, it did so through the lens of Romanitas (Romanity, Romanness). Therefore, it is wrong to think that medieval awareness was unhistorical, or even a-historical. The remarkable thing about Christianity is its unbroken continuity with its origins in the first century. This sets it apart from all other religions (including even Judaism). The medieval world understood this very clearly.

One piece of evidence of this understanding is the use of exempla (historical anecdotes), which divide time into three distinct categories – diachronic time, retrospective time and eternal time. Historical past, including the era of Jesus, was diachronic. Of course, the tradition of using exempla is Classical (ancient) in origin, which medieval philosophy knew. As well, we should not forget the fact that the calendar evidenced how long ago Jesus lived, since it was (and is still) based on His birthday. This means that the medieval world did know that Jesus lived in the first-century, and they did know that the New Testament came from that time period, with the Old Testament being earlier. This means, then, that the medieval world knew that Christianity possessed historical continuity.

The Virgin, therefore, was always crucial to the life of the Church, because she fulfilled the great hope of humanity by bringing the Savior into the world – she is the starting point of mankind’s salvation. Devotion to her is not a denial of Christ (an either/or proposition is simply a confused epistemology) – but it is an affirmation of God’s salvific plan in Jesus. How? By making the mystery of the Incarnation into a Mother-and-Child relationship. When God is born as the Baby Jesus, He must also take on Mary’s flesh. And in doing so, her flesh, her humanity, merges with the Divine, which is Jesus’ dual nature (God and man). What better example of salvation can there? God made flesh so that humanity can become God-like.

Thus, to assume, as all Protestants do, that Mary just became a regular housewife once Jesus got born and had other children by Joseph, is to misconstrue, and then cast doubt on, the Incarnation – which must be a unique event, a “process” brought about by a unique human being (Mary). Otherwise, Jesus is just a man, the physical son of Joseph, because Mary’s womb was not special and was not meant for only one purpose (giving birth to God as man). When Mary is touched by God in such an intimate way, can she just simply go back to “normal” when what she has done is not “normal?” It can even be said that the denial of Mary brings in the eventual death of theology (which is the condition of present-day Christianity, which now seeks to exist beyond theology). Without Mary, the only thing left is a fatigued reliance on allegory, which is a polite way of saying, “superstition.”

But Fulton Brown’s book is not only about the Virgin in the Middle Ages; it is also a significant study of a discipline long-forgotten in the modern world – that of prayer. Indeed, prayer is an intensely human expression, being found in all of human history. But what sets apart Christian prayer? Two things. First, it is “paying attention to God;” it is an “engine…for lifting the mind to God.” Second, as Tertullian reminds us, prayer is sacrifice. For the medieval Christian, prayer was intense meditation and sacrificial offering, affected through intense discipline.

This discipline consisted of reading, memorizing, and repeating set prayers, or litanies, and Fulton Brown focuses on one such litany, the Hours of the Virgin (the Little Office of the Virgin Mary). The term, “litany” derives from the Greek litaneia, which means “prayer,” or “supplication” and involves a schedule of biblical passages, hymns and set prayers to be recited throughout the day. Constant attention, constant sacrifice to God, such were the ideal objects of medieval piety. The discipline came in two forms. First, the daily recitation itself of the various passages, hymns, prayers and petitions; second, the memorization of large portions of the Bible, such as, all the Psalms. Thus, a life of the mind forever attached to God, and each hour of the day and parts of the night spent in His service. This rigor has long vanished from daily life – not that every medieval individual undertook this rigor either – but it was the ideal and everyone pursued it to the best of his ability. This ideal has now vanished.

In an effort to bring back this rigor, this discipline, Fulton Brown guides the reader along in practicing a medieval litany. The very idea of spending hours at prayer is now foreign, given the fact that for most Christians an hour every Sunday seems sufficient. And the object of medieval prayer? Mary, who was the “engine” that lifted the mind and the soul to God: “A creature herself, Mary reflected the virtues and beauty of all God’s creatures; and yet, she had carried within her womb ‘he whom the world could not contain.’ This was the mystery evoked at every recitation of the angel’s words: ‘Dominus tecum’ (the Lord is with thee)’… She it was whom God filled with himself.” In effect, Mary was the engine that made Christianity work, for without her, the Incarnation is denied.

It must be said that Fulton Brown uses a vast array of source material in her study. Such marshaling of material is indeed rare today in academia (given the plague of specialization) and deserves praise. She provides her two subjects (Mary and prayer) a thorough context in medieval theology, philosophy, literature, art, music, and history, by way of some 265 original sources, which range from Adamus Scotus to Guibert de Nogent to José Ximénez de Samaniego. All of these sources bolster the thesis of the book – the centrality of Mary to early and medieval Christianity.

More importantly still, Fulton Brown provides a systematic experience of what Christian faith was really like in the Middle Ages. Thus, reading this book is to undertake an intense training, not only in medieval piety – but in the earliest aspect of Christianity, which was rooted in devotion to Mary: “…the one who made the Lord visible to the world, clothing with flesh as he passed though the veil, magnifying his glory as he came froth from the womb. Mary was the one harmonizing heaven and earth, scripture and human understanding, made it possible to discern God.”

Mary and the Art of Prayer is a book that must be on the shelf of every thoughtful Christian who wishes to understand the quality and the nature of his faith – and it must be read by those who wish to understand the importance and urgency of prayer – for piety without good works (prayer) is selfishness.

Fulton Brown concludes her book with an analysis of Maria de Jésus de Agreda’s (or, Sor Maria) Mystica ciudad de Dios (The Mystical City of God), which is a life of the Virgin that was published in 1670. In it, Sor Maria offers this insight: “…for into the heart and mind of our Princess [the Virgin] was emptied and exhausted the ocean of the Divinity, which the sins and the evil dispositions of the creatures has confined, repressed and circumscribed.”

Such “dispositions” are with us still – so much so that the Church today only wants to be “relevant,” because it can no longer make people holy, let alone make them Christian. The Church has abandoned its flock, which now wanders about unshepherded, seeking God in so many false pastures. Perhaps, therefore, Fulton Brown’s book has appeared at the right time, for the world is in sore need of the discipline of prayer, so that it can restart the Engine of Christianity, without which humanity is lost. This Restart will first mean the reestablishment of fidelity to the truth of Christian. Fulton Brown has offered a blueprint. Have we eyes to see?

The photo shows, “Speculum iustitiae” (The Mirror of Justice) by Giovanni Gasparro. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in 2007, as a pupil of the painter Giuseppe Modica, with a thesis in art history on the Roman stay of Van Dyck. His first solo exhibition took place in Paris is in 2009, and in 2011, the Archdiocese of L’Aquila commissioned him to do nineteen works of art between altar and altarpiece for the thirteenth century Basilica of San Giuseppe Artigiano, damaged by the earthquake of 2009, which constitute the largest painting cycle of sacred art made in recent years. In 2013 he won the Bioethics Art Competition of UNESCO’s Bioethics and Human Rights Chair with Casti Connubii, a work inspired by Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical. He exhibited at the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, curated by Vittorio Sgarbi and at the National Gallery of Cosenza in comparison with Mattia Preti, the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Bologna, the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, the Alinari Museum of Florence, the Napoleonic Museum of Rome, and the Grand Palais of Paris, among many other venues.

November 11, 1918: The Poems of Bertram John William Andrews

[In commemoration of the end of the First World War, one hundred years ago, we present a series of poems only recovered in 2015. They are written by Bertram John William Andrews, who died of his wounds on July 31st, 1917 in the Third Battle of Ypres. He was twenty-two years of age. The poems, unpublished, were left with Annie Knox, a girl that Bertram was courting. It was the niece of Annie who found the poems in 2015. There are many famous poets of World War I – but the few verses that Andrews left behind, presented here, also possess a delicacy and fineness of thought that is rare.]


Bertram John William Andrews (1895 – 1917)


Love and War

A while ago in London town,
I watched the crowds come trooping down
And mark’d the people passing by,
(Such hosts of people passing by)
All speeding on so pensively.
Oblivious of my stare.
Yet all the time I was aware
That one had gone who should be there,
Thus, searching in my memory,
I could not think who it should be
Till, happily,

I saw a soldier home from France
“’Tis he”, I thought, “That merry glance!
“’Tis Cupid who, his bow and dart
“For bomb and bayonet laid apart,
“No longer wars on human heart
“But wages warfare new.
“Yet that,” I ponder’d,” can’t be true.
“The land has lovers still a few.
“Who then can Cupid’s place supply,
“Since still his arrows seem to fly

Anon a maiden chanc’d to pass,
A bright and winsome, laughing lass;
Who, as she went, provokingly
Enslav’d mankind and dext’rously
Contrived, their hearts should captive be
To her whom next they view’d.
Now Cupid fights, his ancient feud
Is by his sister still pursued:
But deadlier her artillery
(His bow and quiver idle lie),
Her roguish eye.

August 1916


At Eventide

The scented zephyr whispers down the hill.
The trees droop low to catch his message sweet.
Rippling, it flows from bough to bough until
It tells me, murmuring softly and discreet.
My love is nigh – and all my pulses fill
With longing: while the summer beauties fleet
Unseen, unmarked, before my eyes that strain
For that first glimpse of her whose magic
Stirs my brain.

The summer takes a fresher sweetness now
The flow’rets bloom in colours yet more fair
And those caressing breezes softer flow
And add more radiant perfume to the air.
Enchanted, Nature’s beauties brighter glow.
She dons a magic loveliness more rare.
My love is nigh – the earth becomes more bright,
And learns to show more lovely in my
loved one’s sight.

The brazen sun his boldness finds too gay,
Confronted with that beauty: and apace
Red and asham’d, he hastes to flee away:
And earth, relieved, still finds a newer grace
When he is gone. And in the twilight grey
Ethereal shines that perfect wistful face.
With benediction stars awake high above
And all my heart goes out in strong
Abiding love.

In passion’s colours, scarlet, purple, mauve.
The sun expires: and silver floods the land
All virginal and pure the moonbeams rove
And line with light the earth on ev’ry hand.
There, where the fierce descending Phoebus strove
With Dian’s onrush, now a stately band
White, fleecy clouds, float through the steel-blue sky
On earth is peace, and in my soul, for Love is nigh.

The nestling villages in silence sleep
The little rivers murmur quietly.
Athwart the moonlit hills the shadows creep
And all the night seems full of mystery.
It’s silences my inmost fibres steep
And lull my spirit to an ecstacy.
Cathedral-like the stillness broods, and rest
Sentient of Love, lies like a garment on Earth’s breast.

July 1916



I dreamed I was a warrior whose cuirass
Shining in splendour paled Apollo’s light.
Massive my shield and fierce it’s polish’d brass
And terrible my helmet’s nodding height.
Within my sword dwelt Slaughter and pale Fright
Ran o’er the lands, submerged neath sable pall,
For with my reeking triumph fell bleak night
And death. Yet all this had I left, to fall
Vanquished before thy feet and own myself thy thrall

And yet again I dreamed: that Music’s pow’rs
Intoxicating, from my fingers flow,
While nations wondered and the woodland flow’d
Entranc’d , in still more perfect beauty glow’d.
At times my strains like shrieking tunes rode
Upon the tempest’s height: at times they fell
With sigh as soft as snow; yet ever strode
As victors o’er men’s natures. But their spell
To thee could not express what all my
Heart would tell.

At last the radiance of pure happiness
Poured on my soul. I dreamed a perfect dream
And Love fulfill’d my life with loveliness
And hid in glory that faint, pallid gleam
Of War’s long stress and Music’s pulsing stream.
“To be thy lover.” Such soft harmony
Lies in those words, which sweeter sounding seem
Than all the magic strains of Faëry.
Ah! loved one, grant it may no more be dream to me.

July 1916



Some mem’ries cling as the heart grows old
Of happy days in the long ago:
And thoughts drift back, sweet thoughts of gold
None else can know

The passionate scent of your windswept hair,
The charm of your slow-waking smile
Those fathomless eyes of mischief rare;
Still will beguile.

And it may be years will pass away,
And Life wan dim and Death draw nigh;
That glorious dream of a sweet June day
Will never die.

Midsummer 1916


The Ship of Dreams

A vessel sails the midnight air
Merrily, merrily,
With merchandise of treasures rare
In purple majesty.
Bright dreams are all its costly freight
And to the port of souls it glides
To charm, where care was, and make glad.
Its choicest wares make strong the sad.
In stormy souls serene it rides
To give respite where sorrow rode.
Ah! Shining argosy!

That ship casts anchor oft, where I,
My soul in stark dismay
From days dark torment, restless lie:
And lulls that torment’s sway.
From foreign sea and distant land
Float dreams, surpassing Ophir’s waves,
The day’s chief beauties and delight,
The mystic wonders of the night,
The chiefest wealth that vessel bears,
More rich than gems of Samarkand
Or pearls from the Cathay.

Ash Rifle Range



That aged one, who still the fire
Of headstrong youth retains:
Who kindles ev’rywhere desire
And binds all men in chains:
Who sometimes hard and cruel would seem
Who makes and shatters many a dream:
For him, harsh master many a ream
I’ve spoil’d and lost my pains
Poor wight!

Each eve old Love comes sailing down
To wake my slumb’ring lyre.
And, for a while, without a frown
With verse he will inspire.
Then, when I think I’m going strong,
He hides his face and all goes wrong.
I’m stranded, so’s my lovely song.
Love smiles and I retire.
Good night!

July 1916



Thus has this little book an end:
But, friend,
If you should read its lines and them condemn:
Pray stay your judgment while I crave
Your patience. Though I sing a strain
Of Sentiment, remember once again
It is the best so dull a knave
As I can sing. And if I dare
Exhort you to refrain awhile:
Has one verse pleas’d you, made you smile?
A little then I pay to Ayr,
Which pleasant town I in my heart do bless
For pleasant folk and three month’s happiness

So I retire. I make my bow
Right now
If anyone to jeer still dares
Who cares?

15 August 1916

[Second Lieutenant Bertram J.W. Andrews, Royal Sussex Regiment, 13th Battalion (the South Downs), is buried in Dozinghem Military Cemetery, in Belgium].


These poems are provided through the courtesy of Discover War Poets.
The photo shows, “Mud Road to Passchendaele,” by Douglas W. Culham, painted in 1917.

Tattered Banners: A Review

A marvellous and deeply evocative book has just been rescued from obscurity and given an afterlife. It is Tattered Banners by Paul Rodzianko. Until this reissue, by Paul Dry Books, this was a difficult book to find. The few copies of the first edition (published in 1939) that came on the market tended to be rather exorbitantly priced. Money-issues aside, this scarcity also meant that few had access to the important account given in this often moving memoir.

The structure of the narrative is a classic one – a man caught in the vortex of destruction. It is also the story of Russia – from the splendor of a sophisticated and cultured age, to the slaughter of the First World War, the cruelty of the Revolution in 1917, and the ensuing Civil War.

The book begins with descriptions of the frivolities, the preoccupations and even the innocence of that pre-war era: the follies and pranks of drunken officers, extravagant revels, glittering ballrooms, and even one or two pretty courtesans, like the blonde Nadejda (Nadezhda). A lost world, long vanished, and often forgotten: “a world that hate and passion have swept aside.”

It is worth noting that the book was written in English, a testimony to that lost cosmopolitan world when men and women were expected to know French, German, and English, along with Russian. Rodzianko knew all four languages. And his writing style is fresh, light and evocative, without being ponderous or preachy. And his insights are often startling, for their enduring relevance: “Then, as now, [people] think what their newspapers told them to think. Whatever they read most often in the biggest type is what nations believe. The masses become indignant, hysterical or conceited, according to the propaganda handed out to them.”

Rodzianko’s canvas is large on which the slow, inexorable passage into tragedy is depicted. The book opens with the terrible calamity of Khodynka Field (the stampede on Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation day, in which 1300 people were trampled to death). Thus, the reign of the last monarch of all the Russias began with a bloodbath – and his reign also ended with one.

Then follows the Russo-Japanese War (another disaster for Russia), the failed Revolution of 1905, which was a warm-up to the real one a dozen years later.

Rodzianko very fairly describes how Russia blundered and fumbled its way into the First World War, by siding with Britain and France, against Germany. It would be a war that everyone knew was of no benefit to Russia, but this was the age of alliances, or what we would call honor.

Russia knew little about modern warfare, and Rodzianko describes the ruinous mishaps, the bad judgment, terrible logistics (lack of food, ammunition, shells), with regiment after regiment wandering about here and there, not knowing whether to attack or retreat, with inept generals issuing orders that contradicted those given earlier.

The saddest parts of the book are the feats of grand heroism shown by the Russian rank-and-file which were nothing other than a terrible waste of life: “…the country they died for was soon to crash; their sacrifice was in vain.”

Then comes the “crash” itself – the Revolution, an unmitigated disaster for Russia, followed by the chaos of 1917, the slaughter of the royal family, and the ensuing long and bloody civil war.

The memoir now becomes a chronicle, and the chronicle becomes an eyewitness account to the terrible and bloody birth of the modern age. What begins as a time of enchantment, lurches into utter horror.

But more than anything else, the book is a life remembered, and the life belongs to Paul Rodzianko, soldier, professional equestrian, and member of the Russian nobility whose childhood of great wealth and privilege was spent playing in palaces, and visiting heroic men, like his grandfather, the old Prince Stroganoff, whose memory reached back to Napoleon and the conquest of Paris by the Russians.

There are cameo-appearances by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who agrees to be tossed about by drunken cavalry officers; there is the kindly Tsar Nicholas, the holy man Rasputin and his murderer, Prince Youssoupoff, the great singer Chaliapin, the brave but doomed General Kolchak, and even a revolting lunch of plover eggs with King George V.

In recounting his life, Rodzianko meditates upon the loss of his world: “…the flower of Russia riding as they would ride to their deaths.”

Interestingly, this republication also marks the hundredth anniversary of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family (July 17, 1918).

Rodzianko was with the Whites (the anti-Red faction in the Russian Civil War), when they captured Ekaterinburg, where the royal family was being held captive. The Whites had hoped to free the Tsar. But the Bolsheviks were far cleverer, and had shot them all and carefully hid the bodies, which were not found until 1998 (they had been located in 1979).

Rodzianko meticulously describes the grisly week he spent, piecing together what he could, trying to locate the bodies of the Tsar and his family. He fails, for the Reds are too meticulous in their murder. What he discovers instead is the vast inhumanity that was the Civil War, for Ekaterinburg and its environs are thickly scattered with graves of hundreds, if not thousands, shot by the Reds – a harbinger of what lay in store for Russia under Stalin.

He digs up bodies that he is told might belong to the royals, but he finds nothing conclusive. But he does manage to find a survivor – the little dog that belonged to Alexei, the young tsarevitch. Perhaps as a consolation, Rodzianko adopts the lost dog, from a lost time, and eventually brings him back to England. The dog’s name, sadly enough, was Joy.

This book is an enthralling read and should be on the bookshelves of all who like to wander in lost realms and muse awhile on days long gone. It is a book filled with atmosphere, color and lively anecdote. The only regret is that Rodzainko should have written more about his life, for as he observes: “I myself cannot believe that I have lived through and witnessed such things.”


The photo shows a work by Vladimir Pervuninsky.


Indo-European And Indo-Europeans

A bit of time travel… The scene: Calcutta, India. The year is 1783; it is the time of the Honourable East India Company (or John Company, as it was often called), which administered Bengal through the governor-generalship of Warren Hastings.

In 1783, then, a thirty-seven year old jurist, a native of London, landed in Calcutta to take up the post of judge of the Supreme Court. This man was Sir William Jones, who not only possessed a brilliant legal mind but also had an innate gift for languages.

When he landed in Calcutta, he could speak all the European languages, along with Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, and even a bit of Chinese. When he came to Calcutta, he was extremely interested in learning Sanskrit, the classical language of northern India. This he set out to do almost immediately, hiring local pundits as instructors.

By 1784, he had established the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which had its own journal, Asiatic Researches. Jones went on to translate many of the classics of Sanskrit literature and laid the foundations of Indology, or the study of Indian culture. Given his propensity for languages, it is not surprising that he began to see patterns and similarities in languages that lay separated by thousands of miles. He says in one of his letters, dated September 27, 1787: “You would be astonished at the resemblance between that language [namely, Sanskrit] and both Greek and Latin.”

This astonishment reached its fullest expression in the early months of 1794, just a little before his death in April of that year. The astonishment, we will note, has now become a certainty, pointing perhaps even to a methodology:

The Sanskrit language, whatever may be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could have been produced by accident; so strong that no philologer [linguist] could examine all the three without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists. There is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and Celtic, though blended with a different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.

Here, we should acknowledge the fact that Jones was not the first person to see this affinity of the languages India, Iran and Europe.

As early as 1581, the Italian merchant Filippo Sasseti saw the same similarity, as did the English Jesuit Thomas Stevens who was in India in 1583.

In the seventeenth century, the Dutch scholar Marcus Boxhorn grouped together Latin, Greek, German and Persian. In 1768, the Jesuit, Gaston-Laurent Coeurdoux saw Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Slavonic and Germanic as all derived from the same source.

And in 1767, James Parsons published his voluminous study, The Remains of Japhet, Being Historical Enquiries Into The Affinity and Origins of the European Languages.

In this book, Parsons gave a lengthy list of words that were similar. The list had over 1,000 words and included all the major Eurasian languages: Irish, Welsh, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Old English, English, Russian, Polish, Bengali and Persian.

In order to highlight his argument of similitude, Parsons compared the same words with other languages, namely, Turkish, Hebrew, Malay, and Chinese. This simple, yet extensive exercise proved beyond a doubt that the languages of Europe and those of Iran and India showed a marked resemblance.

For Parsons, this resemblance pointed to the verity of the biblical account of Noah. In the eighteenth century, the labels used for languages derived from the three sons of Noah, whose progeny came to populate the earth, after the great flood. Thus, the Jews and Arabs were descended from Shem and were hence Semites; the Egyptians were descended from Ham, and were labeled Hamites; and Noah’s third son, Japhet, was the forefather of all the remaining races of the earth; hence the linguistic parallels between India, Iran and Europe pointed to an original Japhetic language, from which all the rest were derived.

Before we scoff at this notion, it is important to keep in mind that it was only in the nineteenth century that this biblical paradigm was abandoned. Even Jones himself postulated Japhetic origins in order to explain the astonishing parallels. Historians in the eighteenth century thought within the structure of Book of Genesis when it came to the remote past. Thus, when the world was destroyed in the Great Flood, it was presupposed that Noah’s Ark came to rest in Armenia, from where Noah’s sons issued forth to repopulate the earth.

But what were these connections that Jones and the other saw?  Let us briefly look at these ourselves in order to get a sense of the astonishment. Here’s a random, brief list to help us along in our discussion.

English:      father          brother          son        daughter       sister

Celtic:         athair         brathair        —         duxtir            siur

Latin:         pater           frater            —         —                  soror

German:    Vater           Bruder          Sohn      Tochter          Schwester

Greek:        pater           phrater          uius       thugater         eor

Sanskrit:    pitar           bhratar          sunu      duhitar          svasar

Persian:     pidar          bradar           hunus     dukhtar          —

Russian:    pyat            brat                syn         doch               sestra

Lithuanian:   —         brolis             sunus      dukte              sesuo


Although Sir William Jones understood the commonalities between the languages of Europe, India and Iran, he himself stayed entrenched in the biblical schema of the Great Flood, when it came time to explain why these affinities existed in the first place.

It was only in the nineteenth century that scholars of language (or philology) could move beyond Noah, and consider other reasons for the correspondences.

Thus, scholars sought to arrive at a “system” whereby these affinities could be scientifically examined. Here was an attempt to move beyond the “astonishment” that mesmerized the eighteenth century towards an understanding of the rules that governed and predicated linguistic parallels.

This meant it was no longer enough to merely construct long lists of words that were similar; it was more important to examine the underlying set of laws that sought to answer the question as to why each word was not exactly the same in all of the languages. Thus despite the similarities, there were also discernible patterns of change that made Celtic “behave” a certain way, when compared to Sanskrit or Germanic. Thus was born the science of comparative philology.

The father of this new science was Rasmus Christian Rask (1787-1832), the Danish professor, who could speak 25 languages. In his monumental work, Essay on the Origin of the Ancient Scandinavian or Icelandic Tongue (1812), he set in place a system that explained the changes within European languages.

For example, he demonstrated the Greek ph = the Germanic b. Thus, it was that the Greek phrater equaled the German Bruder, or the English “brother.” In the same way, the Greek g always corresponded to the Germanic k. Therefore the Greek agros (“field”) was the same as the Old Norse akr, or the English “acre.”

These rules did not stop merely at sound shifts, but could be discerned in the very structure of the languages in this large familial group. For example, the Latin and Sanskrit word for “fire” underwent the very same declension:


Case                                              Latin                                      Sanskrit

Nominative Singular                  ignis                                       agnis

Accusative Singular                    ignem                                     agnim

Dative Plural                               ignibus                                   agnibhyas


Such a methodology initiated a great effort to synthesize comparative linguistics. Chief among these was the massive work, A Comparative Grammar of Sanskrit, Zend, Greek, Latin, Lithuanian, Old Slavonic, Gothic and Germanic, which came in six volumes and took nineteen years to complete (1833-1853). Its author was the great German philologist Franz Bopp (1791-1867).

As for the term “Indo-European,” it was coined by that most learned physician, physicist and Egyptologist, Thomas Young (1773-1829). The term remains popular in English and the Romance languages. German scholars prefer the term “Indo-Germanic.” The meaning of both is the same: the great family of languages that covers most of the globe.

But having arrived at the linguistic similitude, the next question that was inevitably asked was, “Who were the Indo-Europeans?” Thus began the “problem” of the Indo-Europeans, a problem that remains unresolved to this day, despite a great many advances.

And just what is the “Indo-European problem?” Very simply: since there is no dispute as to the similarities that exist between the languages of Europe, Iran, and India, does this not imply that there was once a time in hoary antiquity when there was only one language, from which all these similar languages stemmed?

Scholars have constructed a hypothetical version of this unified language; it is known as Proto-Indo-European (or as the Germans would have it, Urindogermanisch). And if there was this time of linguistic unity, there must have been one tribe, or group of people that spoke this undifferentiated language. And by extension, where upon this earth did this tribe of Indo-Europeans live?

Given this implied unity, can we discern a cohesive Indo-European culture? A shared mythology, religion, and even concepts? As is immediately obvious, the drive towards scientifically examining the likeness in the Indo-European languages also greatly enlarged the scope of study.

It is this broader, and infinitely more interesting, examination of Indo-European and Indo-Europeans to which we shall now turn.

Once we postulate a linguistic unity, we must then consider a time-frame and a geographical location. This is another step in linguistic archaeology, namely, language as paleontology. Methodologically, this means that we must use those words, which describe physicality, geography, the flora and the fauna, and from these “clues” try to find a match in the archaeological record. And sure enough, there are several intriguing possibilities.

Scholars have looked at the common words for trees, animals, plants, and even physical features, such as mountains, lakes, and rivers. But none of these provide enough evidence to pin down the Indo-Europeans with any degree of certitude. However, when we move into the realm of domesticated animals, we are immediately on fertile ground.

One of the advantages of linguistic paleontology is the fact that it provides researchers with markers that can be traced in the archaeological record. Now, when we consider the Indo-Europeans, one of the most important markers is the domesticated horse. First, all the Indo-European languages share a common word for “horse.”

When the speakers of these languages burst onto history, they are always associated with two things – the domesticated horse and the chariot (which we will examine a little later). We also know from the study of ritual in all the Indo-European cultures that the horse played a vital role.

All scholars agree that the horse was an important component of Indo-European culture. Since we are attempting to locate the original home of the Indo-Europeans, we need to consider the fact that if the horse played a central in Indo-European society, then it might be fruitful to look at those locations where is the horse is known to be indigenous.

This brings us to the region that extends east from the Dnieper river to the Volga, or the Eurasian steppe, where herds of wild horses are known to have roamed from the Neolithic period onwards. By the fourth millennium BC, the horse is already domesticated and cane be found as far east as the Afanasievo culture of southern Siberia, and as far west as the Balkans and the Carpathian basin. It is here that the home of Indo-Europeans is to be located. But all that we should discuss another time.



The photo shows, “The Dream of Ossian,” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, painted in 1813.

The Ruin Of Nimrud

“The ziggurat, the shrine that rises to heaven, was hurled into a heap of rubble…its shining door hacked down…the lion-faced gate…they utterly shattered it. O, sorrowful was [the city’s] destruction.” These words date back to about 1925 BC and perhaps were sung with harp and tambourine in mourning for a city’s devastation.

Mourning such despoliation of cities is a very ancient literary genre in Iraq which eventually stretches out into Biblical tradition with the various laments for Jerusalem.

Now that we see “incendiary or bigot” (to borrow a phrase from W.B. Yeats) bulldozing Nimrud into rubble, and piously shattering with sledgehammer and drill all the graven images – our response can only truly be the ancient one of lamentation, which is a call not only to weep but to remember that which has vanished.

What must be remembered about Nimrud? First and foremost as the city which engendered the very discipline of Assyriology, which is the study of the various Mesopotamian cultures which used cuneiform writing.

This came about in 1854 when an extensive and successful exhibition was held at the Crystal Palace, in London, where recent finds from what was then Ottoman Iraq were displayed. Pride of place went to relief panels, artifacts and two giant iconic lamassu (those tri-morph creatures, part lion or bull, part eagle with bearded faces of men) that were painstakingly brought back to Britain by Austen Henry Layard.

Long fascinated by the East, Layard took to a life of an adventurer at 22 and rambled about in the Middle East until he came upon a plain, just where the Upper Zab River flows down to meet the Tigris.

The year was 1839 and he was in the vilayet (province) of Mosul in Ottoman Iraq. The Arab villagers referred to the mounds as Nimrud which the well-read Layard knew to be the city through which Xenophon and his Ten Thousand once passed and which they called Larissa.

Here is Layard describing his first view of Nimrud: “…we looked down upon a broad plain, separated from us by the river. A line of lofty mounds bounded it to the east, and one of a pyramidical form rose high above the rest….There was a tradition current among the Arabs that strange figures carved in black stones still existed among the ruins; but we searched in vain, during the greater part of the day in which we were engaged in exploring the heap of earth and bricks, covering a considerable extent of country on the right bank of the Tigris… These huge mounds of Assyria made a deeper impression upon me, gave rise to more serious thought and more earnest reflection, than the temples of Balbec or the theatres of Ionia.

Seven years later, he would return and uncover ancient Nimrud and, in the process, launch the process which would become the systematic study of the history and culture of ancient Assyria. He would forever therefore be named, “the Father of Assyriology.”

And what his shovel uncovered was rich indeed. Long, carved alabaster walls, bearing reliefs of kings in their chariots, hunting or slaying enemies, two palaces with rooms that still bore faded paintings, beautiful cared ivories of intimate scenes, of faces carved in ivory and alabaster, gazing from millennia past into the present, and massive lamassu, two of which would end up at the Crystal Palace exhibit, and later would become permanently housed at the British Museum.

Layard also uncovered the renowned Black Obelisk, which declares the victories of an Assyrian monarch and includes the earliest mention of a king of Israel, who is shown crouching and kissing the ground before the Assyrian king. The Israelite ruler is identified in the inscription as “Jehu, son of Omri,” who has brought as tribute gold, silver, a bowl of gold, a covered dish of gold, golden buckets and vessels, tin, royal staffs and a spear.

There were also curiosities. One was a lens, perhaps toroidally ground to correct astigmatism. This is the Layard Lens, or more commonly, the Nimrud Lens. It was once mounted and used like lorgnette. It is likely that one of the diggers that Layard employed found it and prised out the lens from its mount, which may have been made of gold.

Layard often said that his Arab workers thought he was intent on his mad scheme only because there was much buried gold about.

The lens was found along with many glass objects, indicating the complexity of the technologies available in the Assyrian world. One is a small bottle on which is written the name of an Assyrian king, Sargon II. There were also fragments of colored glass plaques, as well as two complete glass bowls.

Layard’s pioneering work led to further excavations in the ensuing years, led by Swiss, Italian, and British archaeologists.

And it was Sir Max Mallowan, the husband of Agatha Christie, who methodically studied and excavated Nimrud, from 1947 to 1961, uncovering some wonderful treasures, such as, delicate faience rosettes, the famous ivory panel showing a lioness killing a Nubian boy, and the pair of faces made of ivory and likely painted and given the idiosyncratic names by Mallowan, the “Mona Lisa of Nimrud,” and her “Ugly Sister.”

Christie who had a great interest in archaeology worked alongside her husband and later wrote about her experiences in the Middle East and Nimrud in a rare nonfiction work, Come, Tell Me How You Live.

The work of these many hands showed that ancient Nimrud had a history stretching back nearly three thousand years, and for more than one hundred fifty years it had been in the very limelight as the capital city of the Assyrian Empire.

The Assyrians called the city by another name, Kalḫu, the Biblical Calah. There is indication that the site was inhabited as early as the third millennium BC and served as an unassuming provincial town until about 1076 BC.

Its fortunes changed within two hundred years after that when King Ashurnasirpal II (883 – 859 BC), decided to transform the little town into the imperial capital of his empire. By the time construction was completed in 879 BC, the results were impressive.

The new city now stretched across nearly nine hundred acres, all encircled by a four mile fortified wall, which had four massive gates, where lamassu stood as reminders of wisdom one of the greatest attributes of any good Assyrian king.

The showiest of the buildings was a new palace (now known as the Northwest Palace), built on a monumental scale. It covered seven acres and was divided into three section, one for administrative and state duties (where a small library has been found), one as the royal residence, and the third as apartments for the royal wives and concubines.

The walls of the palace were covered in reliefs and paintings, showing battle and hunting scenes, the homage of tributary cities, Ashunasirpal’s piety and his protection by the gods, and gentler scenes showing the king relaxing in gardens with his attendants and women.

Surrounding the palace were vast parks where exotic trees, flowers and plants were cultivated and where animals, brought from all over the empire, freely roamed.

To show his affinity for the gods, Ashurnasirpal erected nine great temples, including the one dedicated to Nabu (where many literary texts have been found, as well as the names of a family of royal scribes).

Next to it was a temple to Ninurta, the god of victory and author of many heroic exploits. It is likely that his name endures in the modern name of the city, Nimrud.

At the entrance to his new throne room, Ashurnasirpal set up sandstone stele which shows him flanked by various royal and divine symbols; underneath is a rather remarkable text, in which ihe summarized what he had accomplished at Kalḫu.

These are his words: “In my wisdom, I came to Kalḫu and cleared away the old hill of debris. I dug down to the water level. I built up a terrace…and upon that erected my royal throne, and for my own enjoyment I built eight beautiful halls… I painted on the walls of palaces, in bright blue paint [my heroic deeds]… I had lapis lazuli colored glazed bricks made and set them above the gates… I brought in people from the countries I rule…and settled them [in Kalḫu]… I provided the lowlands along the Tigris with irrigation. I planted orchards at [the city’s] outskirts that had all kinds of trees… [In the city itself] the gardens vied with each in fragrance… the pomegranates glow in the pleasure garden like the stars in the sky, they are entwined like grapes on the vine… in the garden of happiness… [here the text is fragmented].”

In the same stele, Ashurnasirpal describes the grand party that he threw once his new city was completed. The guests numbered “69,574…from all the countries including Kalḫu,” and the feast was suitably gargantuan, for which were slaughtered a thousand cattle, a thousand calves, ten thousand sheep, fifteen thousand lambs, five hundred gazelles and stags, along with twenty-four thousand ducks, geese, doves and other fowl, ten thousand fish of various kinds, ten thousand eggs, and even ten thousand jerboas.

There were ten thousand loaves of bread baked and served with many side-dishes of seeds, nuts, olives, pickled and spiced fruits, as well as many prepared vegetables, most of which cannot be identified because their ancient Assyrian names defy translation – the abaḫšinnu-stalks, the raqqute-plants, the šišanibbe-plants, and so on. These plants cannot be identified.

All this was washed down by ten thousand jars of beer and ten thousand skins of wine. At the end of his description, there is the assurance that a good time was had by all: “I did them {the guests] due honor and sent them healthy and happy back to their own countries.”

Ashurnasirpal lived in his city for twenty years, and upon his death he was succeeded by his son, Shalmaneser III (859 – 824 BC), who continued his father’s work of beautifying the capital.

He added the great ziggurat, one of the very remaining ones from Assyrian times, which must have dominated the skyline of ancient Kalḫu, although it is difficult now to determine just how high it stood when it was built; in its present, and certainly incomplete, state it rises to about fifty-five feet. And on that Black Obelisk, Jehu is shown crouching before Shalmaneser.

Also, at this time, another palace was added, now simply called the “Governor’s Palace” because it is smaller than the royal one built by Ashrunasirpal. In its prime it must have shone like an exquisite jewel, for its walls were panted with concentric designs in red, blue, white and black. Found within it were finely crafted pottery and an extensive archive of letters, and legal and administrative documents which cover the period from 802 to 710 BC.

The latter date is important because it in this year that Kalḫu was abandoned as the royal capital by the Assyrian king, Sargon II (721 – 705 BC), in favor of a newly-built city, Dur-Šarruken (The Fortress of Sargon), near the modern-day village of Khorsabad.

Sargon’s son and successor, Senneachrib (705 – 681 BC), who is mentioned in the Bible as the destroyer of the northern kingdom of Israel, in turn abandoned Dur-Šarruken  in favor of Nineveh, where Assyrian kings would remain until the downfall of the empire in 605 BC to the Babylonians.

In 539 BC, all the regions that comprised the Assyrian world became part of a new empire, the Persian one, led by Cyrus the Great.

In these years of turmoil, Kalḫu was neglected and evidence indicates that eventually it became a refuge for squatters fleeing the various incursions by the armies of Cyrus, so that by the time Xenophon passed through it in 401 BC, he saw only ruins and a tumbled-down ziggurat.

After the Persians fell to Alexander the Great, the city saw a brief revival as a series of small villages whose inhabitants have left behind coins, some statues, and a bread oven, which yield a date of habitation from about 250 to 140 BC. Afterwards, there is only silence, though ancient Kalḫlu had one more surprise to offer to the world – and a most fabulous one at that.

In 1989, the Iraq Department of Antiquities, which has done meticulous and detailed work at Nimrud, made a startlingly discovery – intact tombs beneath the Northwest Palace, three of them belonging to queens.

The queens were interred in bronze caskets, bearing their names and curses which are really wishes to be left alone.

The earliest among them is of Queen Yaba, wife of King Tiglathpileser III (744 – 727 BC). The next one belongs to Queen Banitu, the wife of King Shalmaneser V (726 – 722 BC). The third tomb belongs to Queen Ataliya, wife of King Sargon II. As well, there were fifteen burials, some of them children.

There was also an empty stone sarcophagus of Ashurnasirpal’s queen, Mullissu. There is a rather poignant link between the two through their names. Ashurnasirpal’s name means “the god Ashur protects the heir.” The goddess Mullissu was Ashur’s wife.

In the coffins was a royal treasure – hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry, such as, rings, earrings, necklaces, anklets and bracelets, gold plaques to adorn clothes, shaped into stars, triangles and cowrie shells, diadems, vessels of gold and crystal, small sculptures of gold and faience, including one erotic one, and seven mirrors pf bronze and electron. There were more fragile finds, too – fragments of textiles, some with tassels that show a predominance of flax over wool.

Another intriguing find was a silver omphalos bowl that had an inscription in hieroglyphic Luwian, which might spell out the name, Sandasarme who, around 650 BC, was the ruler of Hilakku, a city in Cilicia, in southern Turkey. As an Indo-European language, Luwian is often considered to be the native tongue of the Trojans.

On a funerary tablet that was meant for Mullissu’s tomb is a curse, which states: “…anyone who later removes my throne from before the shades of the dead, may his spirit receive no bread. May someone later clothe me with a shroud, anoint me with oil and sacrifice a lamb.”

Now that Nimrud has been bulldozed, it is hard to say what now survives. Perhaps the destruction is as complete as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. A lot of the ivory plaques and the gold jewelry of the three queens was housed in the museum at Mosul.

Since that too has been ransacked, there is little hope that much of these artifacts are still around. Perhaps someday in the future, when the smashing has finally ended, the shattered city of Nimrud may again be gathered (or clothed and anointed, in the words of Mullissu) and reconstituted, if not physically then at least in memory of the royal capital that once stood by the River Zab, and which ideology destroyed.

May that time come soon, for many, many have already been the “sacrificial lambs” slaughtered in that antique land.


The photo shows the entrance to the palace in Nimrud, an anonymous watercolor, painted 1849-1850.

The Early History Of The Cross

As often happens in matters of scholarly opinion, what is accepted as “true” turns out not to be so upon deeper analysis or newer evidence.

Thus, for the longest while, it was customary to read in books dealing with early Christian history that the use of the cross only gained currency after endorsement by Constantine.

This view was fully expounded by Graydon Snyder in his now “classic” work, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Christian Life Before Constantine.

Many may not know or remember, but poor Professor Graydon was an early casualty in the now-normal “social justice wars.” He was an ordained minister, and had the misfortune of reading a Talmudic account of a man falling from a tree on a woman and “knowing” her by accident.

The Talmud said that this could not be rape. But a female student in the lecture thought otherwise and declared the reading of this passage as the justification of the sexual brutalization of women and forthwith lodged a complaint.

The university, ever eager to forestall offence no matter who gets destroyed in the process, slapped the then-63-year-old professor with a formal reprimand and distributed a memo campus-wide which stated that Graydon had “engaged in verbal conduct of a sexual nature” that had the effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive” space in his classes.

This was not the end of – the university then assigned a monitor that sat in each of Graydon’s classes and lectures, taking notes of anything that might be considered offensive. Graydon soon retired.

Let the date of this incident come as a valuable lesson to all – the demise of the university system happened long ago. This annihilation of a good man’s character occurred back in 1994…twenty-four years ago.

The 1990s were the halcyon days of such random acts of social justice, when universities eagerly dragged the Trojan horse of postmodernism into the Academy, worshipped it with much fawning, drank the heady wine of relativism and feel into the deep sleep of nihilism – from which they never awoke, for the barbarians descended from the belly of the wooden beast and conquered the hapless “intellectuals.”

And, now only various forms of self-indulgent destruction are offered by universities, where once a proud tradition of civilization held sway. Such is the fate of all Troys, if given into the hands of fools.

But let us return to the matter at hand.

In his book, Graydon categorically decided that no evidence existed for the cross as a Christian emblem before Constantine. This led to the false assumption that Constantine “invented” the cross as a religious sign, because he chose to use it during the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.

Given the popularity of Graydon’s book, this view became the “Gospel truth,” and is still widely repeated without question by historians of early Christianity.

Embedded in Graydon’s argument was a curious turn to psychology…since the cross was a method of execution of criminals, it was, thus, an emblem of shame, and could never have been elevated to a sign of the faith before Constantine’s imperial sponsorship of Christianity.

Popularizers then went to work, imagining Christians in the Roman world desperate to hide their faith, even descending down into catacombs to carry out their worship. And that they invented arcane signs to recognize each other, which only fellow-Christians would know (like the “Jesus-Fish” now often found on car-bumpers).

It all sounds plausible, but is simply not true.

Rather, the primary sign of the faith from its earliest beginnings was not the fish or the anchor or the wheel, or even the Sator-Square – but the cross itself. Graydon’s view is nothing other than an exercise in myth-making, which is finally destroyed by a new book that takes a fresh look at the entire “cross-debate” and offers facts rather than myths.

This book is The Cross Before Constantine. The Early Life of a Christian Symbol by Bruce W. Longenecker, which offers incontrovertible evidence that, from earliest times, the cross bore not only symbolic value but also theological significance.

The evidence Longenecker marshals to bolster this conclusion is impressive indeed, for it engages not only extensive material remains, but also solid literary testimony.

Such an approach also fully justifies the unique character given the cross in Scripture, such as, St. Paul’s famous exposition of the double conundrum of the cross – as a mark of utter shame and the very token of final triumph: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18).

Such singularity of the cross links back to Jesus himself, with his well-known exhortation – “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

In, effect, then, Longenecker proceeds to uncover not simply the “life,” but the double-life, of the cross – as an instrument of painful execution, and as a symbol of life eternal.

He begins by examining the recent discoveries of various Jewish ossuaries that are engraved with crosses, either erect (+) or recumbent (x) – and these engravings are neither masons’ marks nor decorations.

Thus, the cross had significance in Jewish religious life during the Roman era. And this significance is grounded in Ezekiel 9: 4-6, where the cross is also the “mark” of God, which sets apart the faithful from the rest condemned to death, and is thus the emblem of life, a particular gift of divine grace.

Among the examples Longenecker shows are the Nicanor, Yehudah, Shalamsion, and the Jehosah ossuaries.

Thus, the “prehistory” of the cross is deeply rooted in the very “prehistory” of Christianity itself, namely, Judaic religiosity.

And because the early Jesus movement branched out of the faith of the Jews, Longenecker uncovers the earliest record of the cross’s double-life, both as a mark of God for mankind’s salvation, and as the process of execution that God, in Jesus, bears himself to bring eternal life to mankind.

Thus, the cross has importance far older than Constantine.

Next, Longenecker lays out an elaborate inventory of material and literary evidence.

He discusses the Alexamenos Inscription, the inscriptions in the Baths of Neptune in Ostia, the inscriptions in the catacombs of Rome, rings showing the cross, the famous Crucifixion Gem amulet in the British museum, the various inscriptions in Asia Minor, the graphic use of the cross in the gnostic Books of Jeu, the staurogram in Manuscript P66, and even the rather mysterious cross in a Pompeii bakery (Longenecker has devoted an entire book to the crosses in Pompeii, which is reviewed elsewhere in this magazine).

The literary testimony is even more extensive, and Longenecker deftly moves through it all to strengthen his case.

Thus, he makes use of the earliest witnesses from the first half the of the first century, namely, the Acts of Thomas; the Works of Hippolytus; Cyprian’s Testimonies and To Demetrianus; Tertullian’s De corona, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Against Marcion; and Letters; Lactantius’s Divine Institutes; Clement of Alexandria’s Miscellanies; Minucius Felix’s Octavius (the first Christian work in Latin, little known outside scholarly discussion).

Moving on to the second century, Longenecker musters the Acts of Peter; the Acts of Paul and Thecla; Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Dialogue with Trypho; the Odes of Solomon; the commentaries of Ignatius of Antioch’s on Ephesians, the Smyrneans, the Trallians; and the famous Fifth Ezra; the Epistle of Barnabas; the Gospels and the Letters of St. Paul; and the Johannine Apocalypse (Revelation).

The conclusions that Longenecker draws from this extensive evidence is as follows:

  • The cross is found in various locations, always in Christian contexts – from Gaza and Jerusalem, out to Rome, Spain, North Africa, Egypt and East into Asia Minor and Syria.
  • Time-wise, the cross can be located as a Christian symbol from the first century down to the early parts of the third century AD. In other words, it is clearly used by Christians as an emblem of faith before Constantine.
  • Over the centuries, the shape of the cross evolved from the Jewish erect cross (like a +plus sign) to the more familiar body cross.
  • Longenecker also points out that the crosses found on rings may well have had an apotropaic function – to protect the wearer from demons and evil spirits (an attitude revived by Bram Stoker in Dracula’s aversion to the cross).

With his impressive and sedulous book, Longenecker has finally put out to pasture all the old myths about the cross, perpetrated by Graydon and his followers.

In other words, the cross was a well-established Judeo-Christian religious emblem long before Constantine took it up as his “coat-of-arms.”

For Christians, from the very beginnings of their faith, the cross had a double-meaning: it was the “mark” of God which set apart the believer from the non-believer, with all the significance of life and grace which this election signified. And, secondly, by extension, the cross became the “mark” that Jesus, the God incarnate, himself bore to embody an eternal life bought through horrific sacrifice.

The paradox becomes the solution – the “mark” of God becomes the instrument of torture, and then returns as a greater sign of life.

It is this paradox that St Paul explains: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14).

Torture brings about glory, death leads to life eternal.

The cross is, in effect, the summation of the entire Christian proclamation – because of Jesus, death, though horrid, is not the end.

Longenecker persuasively demonstrates this historico-theological process in the great gyre of history.



The photo shows, “Christ on the Cross,” by Carl Heinrich Bloch, painted in 1870.

Yes, There Were Christians In Pompeii

One of the more famous volcanic eruptions took place in the late summer of the 79 AD not far from Naples.

In the aftermath, the Roman resort towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii lay buried in neatly ten feet of ash. When these towns were excavated, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they showed themselves to be time-capsules, capturing daily Roman life.

Many have been the explorations and questions about Pompeii – one of the more persistent ones being…Were there any Christians living there in that fateful year of 79 AD?

At that time, Christianity was spreading (and rather quickly) throughout the Roman world, and it would not be too great a stretch to imagine the presence of Jesus-devotion in Pompeii. We do know that St. Paul landed in the harbor town of Puteoli (modern-day Puzzuoli) in the year 61 AD (Acts 28: 130-14), which lies about thirty miles west of Pompeii.

Paul mentions that there were Christians in Puteoli, which means that followers of Jesus were already to be found in smaller towns around Naples.

About a hundred years ago, it was a common assumption that there were indeed Christians living in Pompeii. There is, for example, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Last Days of Pompeii, which imagines the lives of ordinary Christians living in Pompeii just before the volcano erupts. This novel became became the basis of many film adaptations.

This view, however, fell out of favor, and scholarly opinion swung the other way, maintaining that there was, in fact, no real evidence of Christian presence at all.

In a rather remarkable study, filled with great insight as well erudition, Bruce W. Longenecker has upended this scholarly assumption (for it is no more than that), and has shown once and for all that there were indeed Christians in the fated Vesuvian town.

His book, The Crosses of Pompeii. Jesus-Devotion in a Vesuvian Town (which follows his earlier work on the cross as a Christian symbol before Constantine, also reviewed in this magazine), offers evidence that cannot be ignored by scholars of Christian presence in Pompeii.

As in his previous work, Longenecker makes use of material remains to make his point.

It can be said without a doubt that books such as this are rare in historical studies – for it has succeeded in rewriting a misunderstood and ignored aspect of Roman Christian life.

The most fascinating part of this book is Longenecker’s own documentation of examples of crosses carved into the Pompeian street paving stones. Through his own endeavor, he has searched and found eighteen such crosses so far. He feels that there might well be more.

The important thing to note here is that these crosses are not just notches or mason marks. They are, in fact, Christian crosses.

How does Longenecker know this? As the book reveals, these crosses function first as pointers, which might lead a Christian to the most important Christian place in Pompeii, namely, the bakery in the Insula Arriana Pollians, where a cross was found, in a prominent place on the wall, made out of raised plaster.

As well, these crosses serve a protective function, in that they are incised onto busy streets to offer protection. The use of apotropaic objects and symbols was prevalent and common in the Roman world, and the cross certainly fulfilled that purpose in Pompeii.

Longenecker rather cogently points out that since these crosses are not modern surveying marks, nor mason marks, nor ancient traffic signs to keep everything moving on the street, they can only be what they look like, Christian crosses.

They have been laid out, with great effort, in a discernible pattern, or plan – to lead the wayfarer to a Christian place.

This, of course, immediately suggests that Christians did not hide their faith, but rather openly displayed it, for all to see. This also very much underscores the behavior of the various martyrs who never hid their faith, when they could easily have done so to escape death.

These street crosses, then, strengthen the other evidence that exists in Pompeii for Christianity, namely, the Christianos Graffito; the Vivit Cross in Insula 1.13; and the Meges stamp-ring.

The graffito, found in a large residence (7.11.11), reads, “audi Christianos…” (“listen to the Christians…), and hints at the practice of preaching which was so helped the quick spread of the faith in the Roman world.

The Vivit Cross, when interpreted means, “he lives,” which is a very powerful summary of the early kerygma – Jesus lives.

The Meges ring shows a cross surmounting a symbol for eternal life. Again, a very concise summation of the Christian message.

These three pieces of evidence have largely been ignored in the scholarly literature dealing with Pompeii. Bur such has been the fate of Pompeii, when it comes to scholarship, which is notorious for being shoddy and haphazard.

This explains the lack of attention given to the question of Christian presence in Pompeii.

Added to this is the fact that scholarly opinion tends to the blind leading the blind, where something is assumed to be settled and done with, and it is then endlessly repeated as proven fact, when it is no more than an opinion that has gained currency.

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has captured this problem with Vesuvian scholarship clearly when he stated: “Each generation discovers with horror the extent to which information has been ignored, neglected, destroyed, and (the most wanton damage of all) left unreported and unpublished.”

Thus, for many decades scholars, who should have known better, kept repeating what they themselves had only heard – that there were no Christians in Pompeii.

Bruce Longenecker has finally set the record straight. Indeed, there were Christians in Pompeii, and they were an integrated part of daily Roman life, who openly displayed the prime symbol of their faith – the cross.

This remarkable book comes to a moving conclusion in this way… “When the end came on that fateful day in 79, one thing might have caused them (the Pompeian Christians) to look different from their contemporaries. Many of their peers, desperately fleeing the doomed town, fearfully clutched apotropaic devices and statuettes of their deities, from whom they sought deliverance from death. By contrast…Jesus-followers may have left their hands intentionally empty. And perhaps a few with empty hands died with one word on their scorched lips, vivit [He lives].”

The history of Vesuvian Christianity has finally taken a step forward.



The photo shows, “The Last Day of Pompeii,” by Karl Bryulov, painted between 1830-1833.

The Curious Death Of Canada

Is it right for a state to legally sustain and promote a social experiment, based upon an idea now thoroughly derided and debunked, and implemented by political will rather than the will of the people? Is it ethical to have a law that permanently binds race to culture? Is it good for people to live in politically defined structures of abnegation so that various expectations of an ideology may be met?

Sadly, Canada is the only state in the world that can firmly answer, “Yes,” to all three questions. Why? Because it is multicultural by law. (Australia is as well, but its implementation of this ideology is different).

Other western nations have flirted with multiculturalism, but they have had the wisdom not to sanction it by law). And even more sadly, Canada sees multiculturalism as its defining characteristic, its very identity as a state, so that it cannot help but fall into absurdity, with its mantra, “unity” through “diversity.”

An entire country defined by one social experiment – and a failed one at that? Is this the best that Canada can do to overcome Voltaire’s observation that it is nothing more than “quelques arpents de neige…a few acres of snow?”

Indeed, Canada has evolved into a place where all its hopes and even all its fears are placed upon political parties. What has Canada become?

First and foremost, it is a state. It is no longer a nation. That is an important distinction, because the state and the nation are not synonymous, despite the amalgam, “the nation-state.”

By way of political philosophy, a nation is defined as one community, with a shared history and culture – or, in the words of Ernest Renan, the nation is “a soul, a spiritual principle.”

The state, on the other hand, is a political alliance of individuals who share one geographical space defined by borders.

Canada has no community with a shared history, and therefore it has no culture, for culture is a consequence of history – culture cannot, and certainly should not, be created by governments through and by political means. And, Canada certainly has no soul, no spiritual principle which might define why it must exist as a nation.

Therefore, Canada is a state, in which the government aggregates people through immigration for its own ends – to sustain a tax base, because the population within its borders can no longer renew itself through biological means.

As Kant points out, such an aggregation cannot make a community, cannot build a nation – because a nation must be a moral community. And there cannot be diversity in morality. Is Canada, therefore, becoming a failed state whose only raison d’être is economics?

Of course, the very idea of a nation is a moral one (in that a nation should be greater than the sum of its economic capability and its geography). Nations embody values and therefore specify morality.

This is why some nations are better than others – this is why the flow of immigrants is westwards – millions of Canadians do not seek to migrate to other parts of the world. Why? Because the western world embodies a set of ideas and principles of morality that have historically proven to yield not only the best social results, but also the best economic results. Good ideas and good morality do create wealth, prosperity, freedom, happiness. Bad ideas do not.

A few years back, the philosopher, Marcello Pera established multiculturalism as the political version of a failed ideology, namely, relativism.

Briefly, relativism insists that history is useless because we are better than the past – because we have benefited from progress.

History is filled with our benighted ancestors who followed regressive ideas that we now have to fix and make right, while shaking a scornful finger. We are smart; they were dumb; and there is nothing they can do about it. Since we are progressive, we will build a much better world by getting rid of all the tired-old notions.

It is obvious how thoroughly ingrained relativism has become, for it passes for much of popular thinking. Perhaps progress is the most damaging legacy of eighteenth century Enlightenment, whereby everything modern is better – because it is not old.

We have only to look to one of its gravest consequences – hyper-capitalism and the devastation it has wrought not only socially, but environmentally. Each year is divided into four quarters, and each quarter must be more profitable than the last.

Relativism also maintains that there is no such thing as truth, because truth is what you make it. So, things like morality, or values, simply become personal choices, expressed as individual rights, because no one truth, morality, or value is better than any other.

Thus, there can be no universal (transcultural) morality or set of values which may be considered as being better than another because there is no point of reference. Paul Feyerabend succinctly summarised all this in a catchy phrase, “anything goes.” It is all a matter of lifestyle, everyone’s opinion is valuable and important – because personal opinion is all that we are capable of.

Aside from the immediate contradiction that relativism falls into – that what it says is actually “true” (a transcultural moral principle) and that this “truth” is good for everyone on this planet (a universal judgement). Therefore, it ends up doing precisely what it denies. But there are far graver deeper fallacies.

First, there is social paralysis. If all cultures are the same, then an evil culture cannot be denied, let alone criticized or defeated.

Second, there is paralysis of judgement. If all cultures have equal value, then there must be an external value system, which must be true to be applicable – but such a system, relativism says, does not exist.

Third, if all cultures are valid, then change itself is denied, since abandoning one culture and moving to another does not lead to any change at all.

Fourth, if all cultures are valuable and worth preserving (by government intervention), then cultures become prisons, from which escape is impossible – your DNA , not your mind, determines who and what you are – forever.

Why? Because you can never say that one culture is better, and more preferable, than another. This is the reality of multiculturalism – a relentless, grim determinism – precisely what relativism supposedly sets out to destroy.

It is often argued that multiculturalism builds tolerance, that it neutralizes the perceived harmful effects of religion, that it strengthens secularism, that it sustains democracy by promoting individual freedom.

Such statements are typical of ahistorical diktats. Tolerance is not a consequence of multiculturalism; rather, it is a virtue deeply embedded in the very fabric of the West’s (ignored) history – Christianity. Multiculturalism cannot explain a very basic fact – that religions create culture.

But by promoting all cultures, multiculturalism legitimizes all religion. Therefore, multiculturalism cannot further secularism (whatever that may be) because it entrenches and promotes all religions – and all world religions are religious at very core.

As for the relationship between multiculturalism and expressions of individual freedom, it is simply an illusion. How can an ideology, which imprisons people (because of their DNA) into their geographical places of origin, claim to be a liberator?

This is a tragic deception – because multiculturalism demands a total submission of the individual to his/her culture. This deception becomes clearly obvious if we consider a recent example. There was much uproar over women fully hiding their faces in veils.

Relativism in all its splendour was invoked – with reminders of personal freedom, the right to choose (if women can legally be topless, then they can legally go about fully veiled), and so forth.

But no one wanted to ask the much harder question – why does a fully-veiled woman refuse to change? Because she does not wish to participate in a non-Muslim world – she will be forever absent from the non-Muslim public sphere.

However, she is simply following the expectations of multiculturalism by fully submitting to the demands of her culture (as she interprets it), not as an individual – but in accordance to the expected behaviour of her sex in her culture.

Thus, multiculturalism does not mean freedom, democracy, individuality for everybody – it is simply a method to help Canadians with British DNA to overcome their own guilt of being historically Christian – because good relativists that they are, they imagine that are not yet free enough, secular enough, individual enough, progressive enough.

Quebec, of course, fully understands that if it starts playing the multicultural game, it will have to abandon its narrative of being historically unique in North America and learn to accept that it is just like any other culture carried over by immigrants. This is why Quebec has always been a fellow-traveller on the great culture experiment.

In effect, the larger, British culture of Canada is expected to be multicultural. The various immigrant communities (which behave like mini-nations) are firmly expected to be mono-cultural.

Perhaps it is now time to ask a fundamental question – why must Canada continue to cling to multiculturalism? Is it simply to say that because of it Canada is not like the “melting Pot” of south of the border?

Is Canada really as fragile as that? Is it simply to demonstrate to the world that Canada is a “world-leader” when it comes to being on the “cutting-edge” of modernity? Is it to assert that it is profoundly post-Christian and entirely secular?

The fact remains, no country in the world wants to be multicultural. They want to be nations. They do not want to lose their spiritual essence, their soul.

In a very strange twist, multiculturalism spawns that which it sets out to dismantle – cultural superiority. Government-endorsed propaganda expounds “pride” in one’s DNA-ingrained culture, and people are avidly encouraged to be “proud” of however they want to romanticize “the old country.”

The old moral concept of humility has long been replaced by the strident political one of “pride.” Whoever dare say that he is truly humbled to be a Canadian?


The photo shows, “The Death of Jane McCrea” by John Vanderlyn, painted in 1804.

The Great God Pan Is Dead: Classicism And Modernity

Is the West’s deep debt to the Classics at an end? Do the Greeks and the Romans have no further use in the twenty-first century, where people are interested only in “living each moment to the fullest.”

If true, this would mean that the ancient Greeks and Romans (aside from keeping otherwise unemployable academics in harness) only offer us nostalgia, which embodies the entire of industry of keeping in harness otherwise unemployable academics. Such nostalgia is the shiny side of nihilism – which is continue to teach while believing in nothing. But then nihilism is the currency of the Academy.

There are different versions of this nostalgia, where the hows and the whats are efficiently encountered and taught – but the more important question of, why, is often neglected. Why the Greeks? Why do they keep haunting us?

The title of this presentation comes from a story told by Plutarch, in his dialogue entitled, “On the Failure of Oracles:”

I have heard the words of a man who was not a fool nor an impostor. The father of Aemilianus the orator, to whom some of you have listened, was Epitherses, who lived in our town and was my teacher in grammar. He said that once upon a time in making a voyage to Italy he embarked on a ship carrying freight and many passengers. It was already evening when, near the Echinades Islands, the wind dropped, and the ship drifted near Paxi. Almost everybody was awake, and a good many had not finished their after-dinner wine. Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, cnot known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, ‘When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.’ On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astounded and reasoned among themselves whether it were better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. Under the circumstances Thamus made up his mind that if there should be a breeze, he would sail past and keep quiet, but with no wind and a smooth sea about the place he would announce what he had heard. So, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: ‘Great Pan is dead.’ Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement. As many persons were on the vessel, the story was soon spread abroad in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius became so convinced of the truth of the story that he caused an inquiry and investigation to be made about Pan; and the scholars, who were numerous at his court, conjectured that he was the son born of Hermes and Penelope.

One of the pioneers of Greek studies, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, in his famous work, The History of Art in Antiquity (1764), also speaks of nostalgia:

Already here I have overstepped the limits of art history, and when I have meditated on its decline I have occasionally felt like a historian, who, in telling the story of his native country, is forced to allude to its downfall, of which he himself was the witness. And yet I could not refrain from following the fate of the artworks as far as my eyes were able to see, just like a young girl standing at the shoreline, watching, with tear-filled eyes, the departure of her beloved, without hope of ever seeing him again, and in the distant sail believes she can recognize his image; precisely for this reason we feel an even stronger yearning for what has been lost, and we contemplate the copies of the original images even more attentively than if we had been in possession of them.

For Winckelmann, the ancient Greeks are the very origin of the modern world, without whom there can be no understanding of why society must exist in sacred unity – sacred because it sees order as divine, in that order must constantly stand against chaos. Thus the classical age is a normative process, one that structures our thinking and our reality.

Further, Winckelmann warns against a slavish imitation of the simplified paradigms of the Greeks, for to do so would mean the neglect of the very purpose, the why, of the Greeks in any sense of modernity.

Thus, those who would point us to quotations in popular culture, or to architectural features even in contemporary buildings as a justification for allowing the Greeks to exist in modernity, fail to see the purpose of these “quotations” in their ancient context – which was to present that sacred unity.

In fact, nostalgia cannot be a wistful gaze backwards; rather, it is a process through which to think of the future. The past cannot help but be wistful, because it comes to us in fragments, never as a whole. And when we encounter these fragments from antiquity, we beginning to think of origins, and by thinking of origins, we begin to think what must come after.

If we are to entirely abandon the Greeks, as Greenblatt concludes, because they are no longer valid for the concerns of today, what becomes of our origins – the very DNA of our thinking? And when an understanding of origins is neglected, then, it is not long before the link between mythos and logos, mythology and reason is broken, and we fall into idle romanticism, where each one must find his/her own origin, in a personally constructed etiological narrative.

Is this not the fundamental problem facing the world today – the clash of mythologies, of personalized narratives that demand not simply a hearing, but a vanquishing of all others – and more tragically, each of these narratives is also a utopian fantasy for the individual fantasist, and harrowing dystopia for the outsider.

In other words, to lose sight of the Greek origin of our habit of mind, is to become open to division, which is euphemistically referred to as, “diversity,” which in turn becomes a tragic tyranny.

To be Greek-less is to be world-less, and to be word-less is to descend into an intense solipsism, where things exist for the self alone. It is Alexandre Kojeve who reminds us that becoming an animal is becoming modern, and such is the future of modernity. To live only for the present is to live without origins. In a famous passage in The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche tells us this fable:

Observe the herd which is grazing beside you. It does not know what yesterday or today is. It springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with its likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment, and thus is neither melancholy nor weary. To witness this is difficult for man, because he boasts to himself that his human condition is better than the beast’s and yet looks with jealousy at its happiness. For he wishes only to live like the beast, neither weary with things nor in pain, and yet he wants it in vain, because he does not desire it as the animal does. One day the man demands of the beast: “Why do you not talk to me about your happiness and only gaze at me?” The beast wants to answer, too, and say: “That comes about because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say.” But by then the beast has already forgotten this reply and remains silent, so that the man keeps on wondering about it.

To live without memory is also the abandonment of memory, which is the abandonment of humanity. Nietzsche will answer this abandonment with his notion of the Superman, the Overman, who becomes Shaw’s greater defender of the “Life Force.”

And notice, too, here, that by neglecting our origin, we must separate sensuality from thinking. For the Greeks, art was philosophy because it was sensual, because thinking and sensuality could never be separated – is this not what the story of Pygmalion and Galatea all about?

Reality as the undistinguished unity of sensuality and thinking. The name “Galatea” is rooted in the Greek word for “milk.” By joining sensuality and thinking humanity nourishes itself. In his essay on Parmenides, Martin Heidegger observes: “never would it be possible for a stone…to elevate itself toward the sun…and move like a lark.”

Galatea only becomes the nourisher, the milk-giver, if you will, when Pygmalion (the etymology of whose name is lost to us) beckons her with his desire and his wish – the translation of the ideal into reality.

The human must be more than the object, because reality must possess more than blind purpose – it must also possess meaning. Galatea, not simply as stone-cold, but a warm, beautiful woman. The inchoate quality of nature is finally and fully completed in mankind, and only in human apprehension, and therefore the creation, of beauty.

The rather mysterious, and famous essay, dating from perhaps 1796, or 1797, entitled, “The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism,” which might have been written by Hegel, or Hölderlin, or Schelling, or perhaps someone else, states:

Finally, the idea which unites all [previous ones], the idea of beauty, the word understood in the higher Platonic sense. I am convinced now, that the highest act of reason, which—in that it comprises all ideas—is an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are united as sisters only in beauty. The philosopher must possess as much aesthetic capacity as the poet. The people without an aesthetic sensibility are philosophical literalists [Buchstabenphilosophen]. Philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy.

Beauty, in effect, makes sensible ideals that would otherwise be unattainable, which therefore give to mankind a destiny that is higher than individual perceptions or concerns.

In other words, beauty provides us with the understanding that our individuality stems from something greater and higher – a “grand physics,” in the words of this anonymous essay. And this grand physics, this essay says, “will survive all other arts and sciences.” Beauty, then, as origin of human thought.

It is here that the question of classicism in modernity becomes crucial; for who but the Greeks have given us the habit of mind to align beauty with humanity, with the merging of the transcendent with the mundane?

We see this play out in the work of the Greek tragedians. Why tragedy? Why the need to show the fall of human endeavour into failure? Why the need to show human dignity in the midst of utter despair and suffering?

All these questions may be answered in a succinct way – that humanity alone is marked by natural moral law, and that all the despair and the ensuing destruction cannot negate this law – it alone is pervasive and eternal. The expression, the consequence of natural moral law is beauty.

If we are to look for a definition of what is meant by “classicism,” then it is here – classicism is the expression of natural law as beauty. And in the very word “beauty” is summarized the entirety of Greek thought, which seeks to understand virtue, wisdom and reason. Without the Greeks, beauty is lost in purpose, in necessity.

Thus to suggest that the Greeks are dead and useless is to abandon the human project. This suggestion may even signal the end of humanity and the beginning of “animality,” where the world can only be a battlefield, where only the will to power holds sway.

To abandon the Greeks, means also the abandonment of all notions of civilization and barbarity, because the play of power can only lead to dominance and subservience, because power has no need for natural moral law.

Greece, then, is more than a geographical location, more than a historical name. It is our mirror image, upon which we can speculate – that is, contemplate ourselves, for the root meaning of “speculate” is the Latin speculatio, that is, observation, contemplation, as in a mirror – a speculum. Greece is this mirror, because it is our ancient ancestor, for as the Greeks themselves said, to think like a Greek is to be Greek. Through them we have our being, and without whom we cannot be.

We are like Odysseus, erring and wandering, but ever mindful of our return home, our nostos, the true root meaning of “nostalgia.” And it is the memory of this origin, this spiritual homeland, that awakens in us a great and painful yearning (algos) to keep venturing farther away, and yet also to keep returning home. The future is therefore always the past.

Greece builds us, because it is only through Greece that we come to possess history as the amassed consequences of ideas and actions, which in turn bring us to modernity, which is often marked by despair, in that transcendence is irreversibly lost. Modernity as a Greek tragedy.

To lose the Greeks is to lose the very idea of transcendence – wherein the individual places himself in something greater than his own existence, which simply means that there exists an innate link to destiny in each of us.

To lose that link means the loss of meaning itself, for how can we live without meaning? At the end of Sophocles’s The Women of Trachis, Hyllus, just as he is about to place the body of his father, Heracles, on the funeral pyre, says: You have seen new and terrible deaths, many woes and new sufferings, and there is none of these that is not Zeus.

All things have meaning only through transcendence. To think of a future without the Greeks, is not to think at all – rather, it can only be an abandonment to despair, from which there is rescue – the crisis of modernity. To say goodbye to the classical world is also to say goodbye to morality, justice, and the good.

And what is left? That is the question that leads to modern despair. What is truly left, when the Greeks are finally and irretrievably gone? Is it possible to live without an origin, a goal, a telos? And since rationality is always goal-directed, how shall we think?

Simone Weil asks this question in another way, in one of her notebooks: “Would a society in which only gravity reigned be able to exist?” By gravity she means what Nietzsche said in the Genealogy of Morals – that “since Copernicus man has been on a steep slope rolling towards nothingness.”

Thus, gravity is that which forever pulls us down. But humanity also needs a force that pulls it upwards. A good society must have an equilibrium of both ascent and descent; and this movement of up and down, becomes a barrier against evil (that which destroys humanity).

To have a society controlled by gravity is to have a society in which opposites cannot exist, for there is only a one-way movement, downwards. Injustice could never be expiated; evil could never be countered by the good, because the good has been questioned away as “anything goes.”

And individuals fail to set themselves apart from society, and society fails to close itself to harmful individuals. Weil goes on to call such a society, “The Great Beast.” This she gets from Plato, who in his Republic says:

It is as if a man were acquiring the knowledge of the humors and desires of a great strong beast which he had in his keeping, how it is to be approached and touched, and when and by what things it is made most savage or gentle, yes, and the several sounds it is wont to utter on the occasion of each, and again what sounds uttered by another make it tame or fierce, and after mastering this knowledge by living with the creature and by lapse of time should call it wisdom, and should construct thereof a system and art and turn to the teaching of it, knowing nothing in reality about which of these opinions and desires is honorable or base, good or evil, just or unjust, but should apply all these terms to the judgements of the great beast, calling the things that pleased it good, and the things that vexed it bad, having no other account to render of them, but should call what is necessary just and honorable,1 never having observed how great is the real difference between the necessary and the good, and being incapable of explaining it to another.

And such descending individuals learn to develop a personalized structure of behaviour in order to live with such a beast. Acts of criminality become ordinary and therefore acceptable, since such acts are simply another version of personalized behaviour.

Indeed, Durkheim soon realized that there could never be an end of hierarchies, where even the criminal has a vital role to play in society.

In other words, without the Greeks, all we are left with is nihilism, where there is no end to entropy, the endless fall into dissolution. Only the descent, never an ascent.

The character of Lord Darlington, in Oscar Wilde’s play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, utters this famous line: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

The final thing left in Pandora’s box was hope, Hesiod tells us:

Only Hope was left within her unbreakable house,
she remained under the lip of the jar, and did not
fly away. Before [she could], Pandora replaced the
lid of the jar. This was the will of aegis-bearing
Zeus the Cloudgatherer.

What is hope, if not transcendence, to think beyond the present, and into the future, by way of the past?

The Great Pan is dead, said the voice in lamentation, because modernity is the refusal to look up from the gutter at the stars.

To lose the Greeks, is to lose our humanity.

W.H. Auden concludes his poem on the death of W.B. Yeats, with this quatrain:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.


The photo shows, “Pygmalion and Galatea,” by Louis Jean François Lagrenée, painted in 1781.


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