Thirty years ago first lady Nancy Reagan withstood a torrent of public abuse for her suggestion that schools teach children simply “to say no” to temptations. Mrs. Reagan’s critics did not say what else people are supposed to do to avoid temptation; they were merely certain that the will is powerless and they were outraged at the idea that the possibility of self-control might be entered as an item in the school curriculum.
I. Everyone has vices. Most people manage to overcome the worst of their viciousness. It therefore requires a mighty labor not to see the so-called explanations of vice as mere excuses – indeed, as lame excuses – for irredentism and indulgence. The claim of personal helplessness is the creed of people who like their vices and who will on no account reform themselves. These non-explanations nevertheless have wide currency, but so also do the indifferent notion that the self is a “logocentric” illusion and the relativistic opinion that to flout a stricture is morally equal to observing it. The political religions of the Twentieth Century all relied on – and indeed mandated – these views as part of the ‘correct” view of existence. Socialism generically predicates its own inevitability and it then necessarily also predicates the emptiness of individual determination or action. Radical restructuring of society comes upon us inevitably, the vanguard always argues; and restructuring is justified because there are whole classes of victims whose misery is supposedly not of their own making, but has impinged on them from an outside beyond the control of the afflicted. In its less acute form of the multicultural welfare state, socialism insists that victim-groups not only cannot help themselves but that they cannot actually be reformed and that it is the duty of everyone else, first, to refrain from any condemnation of counterproductive behaviors and, then, to subsidize the pathological consequences of those behaviors.
Determinism or Fatalism is, however, hardly a modern innovation. The idea appears to ripen with a certain stage of civilization and to go in tandem with a lapse in family integrity and a general abeyance of customs and forms. Whatever we call it, the same sophistic teaching also shows itself to be in a relation with the scale of the civic environment, belonging not to the eras of the city-state or of the feudal market town but rather to the ages of empire, cosmopolitanism, and the universal bureaucratization of life. As we moderns invoke biological and sociological mechanisms to absolve people of their infractions, either of omission or commission, so the ancients invoked Heimarmene or Fortuna or Sors, implacable, superhuman agencies that play with human beings, as gamblers play with dice. Fate, sometimes also Chance, explains wealth or poverty, success or failure, as an accident, which might have fallen out otherwise; it simultaneously dulls pity for the afflicted and suggests that industriousness never really deserves the fruits of its labor. What real virtue, then, attaches to the putatively virtuous? Why imitate frugality, chastity, or prudence? Fatalism would persuade the subject that to moralize about behaviors or conditions is to protest uselessly against forces beyond his conscious control.
Like all hypocrisy, Fatalism pays stealthy tribute to that which it aims to avoid or denounce or suspend. It utters a perpetual cry of “I can’t help myself,” thereby confessing to secret cognizance of its own self-forfeiting wretchedness. In acknowledging and denying morality, the doctrine of individual will-less-ness blurs moral clarity. It likewise disorients those in its gray aura who would seek the independent way and who would best be served in their quest for moral self-control by a pellucid, rather than by an occluded, description of good and evil. The doctrine of individual will-less-ness abets libido by dissimulating rhetorically the actual presence of any effective, morally responsible volition. As Gilbert Murray narrates in The Five Stages of Greek Religion (1925), the idea of implacable Fate as the supreme cosmic power arose as belief in the old Olympian deities shrank away and as rival imperial powers fought for dominance in the world of Mediterranean Antiquity.
Referring to Alexander’s conquests, the wars between his successors, and the civil wars that led to the establishment of the Roman Empire, Murray writes: “In a country suffering from earthquakes or pestilences, in a court governed by the whim of a despot, in a district which is habitually the seat of war between alien armies, the ordinary virtues of diligence, honesty, and kindliness seem to be of little avail. The only way to escape destruction is to win the favor of the prevailing powers, take the side of the strongest invader, flatter the despot, placate the Fate or Fortune or angry god that is sending the earthquake or pestilence.” Murray quotes Juvenal on the ubiquity of destiny-worship: “Throughout the whole world, at every place and hour, by every voice Fortune alone is invoked and her name spoken… we are so much at the mercy of chance that Chance is our god.” Murray writes, “So much for the result in superstitious minds of the denial, or rather the removal, of the Olympian gods,” which “landed men in the worship of Fortune or Fate.” Finally, there is a dangerous “denial of the value of human endeavor” that has the “quality of poison when believed.”
In this light consider three stories from the period Late Antiquity. Petronius Arbiter composed Satyricon around 60 AD while acting as Emperor Nero’s master of ceremonies. Lucius Apuleius, a Platonist, wrote The Golden Ass around 160, during the long reign of Marcus Aurelius. Augustine of Hippo, latterly St. Augustine, wrote his autobiographical Confessions in the last decade of the Fourth Century. We will discover, among other things, that the explicitly Christian civilization, against which modernity characteristically defines itself, emerged in part as a response to ancient fatalism, and that every one of the self-made moral snares that trap modern people – from Mammon-worship and ego-inflation to satyriasis and nymphomania – has its counterpart in the teeming, avaricious, flesh-obsessed Mediterranean world of the Imperial centuries. Those remote centuries begin to look a good deal like our own contemporary moment.
II. The first of the extant episodes of Satyricon is called “Puteoli” after the Greek-speaking city on the Bay of Naples in which the author sets the action. In it the novel’s protagonist, Encolpius, is trying to find his way home. The name Encolpius, like much else in Satyricon, is a scurrilous joke, referring to its bearer’s sexual endowment. As for the nostos or homecoming theme, it structures many an ancient tale, Homer having established its pedigree as a plot-device par excellence in his Odyssey. Yet Odysseus actually has a home – and a wife and a son – to which he can struggle to return. Odysseus’ struggle, moreover, is as much moral as it is physical. At the beginning of Book I, Homer says of his hero that he alone among those who went from Ithaca to Troy could control his urges and therefore he alone found his way although delayed back home. Nestor and Menelaus, who also figure in Homer’s tale, likewise have homes, Sparta and Pylos respectively, to which, in due course, they return. Petronius draws on the Homeric nostos-motif while sharply distinguishing his own main character from Homer’s eponymous and entirely admirable hero. The distinction lies in the conception of self-determination. Odysseus has it whereas Encolpius does not.
A drifter, a con man, and a fornicator – a cynic indeed of the purest water – Encolpius connives with his companions from town to town, always eyeing the local scene, always cleverly commenting, always artfully dodging, and much worse. After delivering a diatribe to his fellow swindler Agamemnon, which keenly sums up the decline (as Petronius sees it) of rhetoric and of education, Encolpius would like to find his lodgings. Unfortunately all the tenements in the low-rent district where Encolpius keeps rooms look the same to him, and his circumstance forces him to ask a stranger, an old woman, whether she recognizes him and can point his way home. Offering personally to lead him there, she says at last, “This is where you must be staying.” Encolpius, who serves Petronius as first-person narrator, says: “I was just telling her I did not recognize the place, when I caught sight of some naked old prostitutes and some customers prowling up and down in the middle of them. Slowly, in fact too late, I realized I had been taken to a brothel.” Encolpius runs into his roommate, Ascyltus, who explains that he also, as he says, “couldn’t find where I’d left our lodgings,” whereupon “a respectable-looking gentleman offered to show me the way”; this guide, leading him through “various pitch-dark turnings,” until he “brought me to this place.”
Petronius has his characters make endless weary references to the famous Labyrinth of Minos and to the Cyclops-Cave, these things being outstanding metaphors of their self-defining and therefore also self-limiting cul-de-sac existence. Encolpius, losing his way in the rambling mansion of the billionaire-freedman Trimalchio, calls it in irritation “this modern labyrinth.” When Encolpius embarks on a ship in flight from his creditors only to discover that he has chosen his creditors’ ship, his companion in crime Eumolpus invokes Polyphemus’ dreadful lair, as the poetic figure most representative their dire straits. But Eumolpus forgets that Odysseus did not enter that cave by accident, but rather by imprudence and in a mood of unmonitored curiosity, for which he dearly paid.
While inconvenient to the two ne’er-do-wells, their inadvertent rendezvous in the Puteoli whorehouse testifies comically to their debased condition. While clear-sighted regarding others and quick to see a fault in a rival or a comrade, neither Encolpius nor Ascyltus, both inveterately plaintive, sees himself transparently. Like others in Satyricon, Encolpius ascribes his unhappiness, not to its origin in his own lasciviousness or envy, but rather to a malign power extrinsic to his will which compels him into unwonted misadventure. “Fate,” Encolpius says in the episode of the hastily planned sea-voyage, “has utterly defeated me at last,” a remark that might have been quoted with profit by Murray in conjunction with the passage from Juvenal. When one of Encolpius’ schemes prospers, he classifies the event as “a marvelous stroke of luck,” saying “anyone would have envied [him his] luck.” When life goes badly, he curses an opposite “cruel luck.” A sorceress consoles Encolpius with the astrological thought that “he was born under an evil star.” By the benevolent whimsy of the stars, it is, that the astrology-obsessed Trimalchio explains his extraordinary ascent from slavery to riches; but, according to one of his dinner-guests, “they say he stole a hobgoblin’s cap and found its treasure.”
“It is worth remembering,” writes Murray, “that the best seed-ground for superstition is a society in which the fortunes of men seem to bear practically no relation to their merits and efforts.” Both explanations of Trimalchio’s success in life superstitiously misrepresent the causes of his affluence, namely his talent for bookkeeping and his sense for business. One might speculate in the case of the guest who proposes the hobgoblin theory, that the host’s success has provokes the guest’s envy, which then requires the deflation of the offending object. One might speculate that in the case of the host, a type of socially elevating magical status adheres to the public perception of being blessed by Fortune. So why bother to deny it? It is mendacious either way because fatalist rhetoric dissimulates moral causality. Again, telling of the “loneliness and humiliation” that caught up with him in his escapades, Encolpius utters these words: “Why couldn’t that earthquake have swallowed me up? Or the sea, such a menace even to innocent people? Did I escape the law, did I outwit the arena, and did I kill my host, only to end up, despite my claims to being a daring criminal, just lying here, a beggar and an exile, abandoned in a lodging-house in a Greek town?” This too is a form of mendacity. So is the associated formula: “One should not rely a great deal on one’s plans as fate has a way of her own.”
By contrast, in cases other than his own, Encolpius generally penetrates to the ethical antecedent of the reigning existential misery. In the critique of bad rhetoric and corrupt education mentioned earlier, Encolpius observes that pandering to students will create cohorts of self-satisfied ignoramuses who will degrade the professions that they later enter. “Once the rules go,” Encolpius says, “eloquence loses vigor and voice,” an observation convergent with the one made by Longinus in his treatise On the Sublime, written within a hundred years of Satyricon and likewise addressed to the defaults of life on an imperial scale. Rhetoric lying at the heart of ancient education, its degradation bodes ill for social conditions generally.
Encolpius can also occasionally glimpse the origin of his own unhappiness. Hearing a story about Ascyltus, with whom he has fallen out, he remarks on his own alternating “amusement at [his] rival’s misfortune” and “annoyance at his success.” Resentment pervades the nocturnal mise-en-scène in Satyricon, the gray of night being a moral symbol as well as a diurnal phase. Lechery, avarice, and all forms of appetite indulged by those who see in the rule of moderation an intolerable scandal – these also nebulously pervade the mise-en-scène of the novel. For Petronius, appetite and resentment are metaphorically the same things as the mythical labyrinth. The well-constructed maze befuddles those who would desperately like to find their way out but only after they enter the trap in a mood of blissful voluntarism.
Insofar as the characters of Satyricon find themselves thwarted in their progress by a bewildering path, they have stupidly built that baffling maze for themselves. We see this diagnosis in one of the major unifying strands of the itinerant story, when Encolpius falls under the supposed wrath of the god Priapus after profaning the sacred rites by spying on them. The Homeric parallel is the Wrath of Poseidon against Odysseus, but Odysseus, in contrast to Encolpius, never peeps through a keyhole. The Priapus cult belongs to the pornographic milieu of Petronius’ novel, because it takes the form, preliminarily, of a sex-cult purely and simply. Originally, however, Priapus functioned in the role of a god of measure and of limitation. Petronius knows this; he exploits the deity for an ingenious double meaning.
Thus Circe, a priestess of the Priapic rites, tries to help Encolpius shed the god’s curse, which takes the form of a nagging but condign fiasco. An element in Encolpius’ willful debauchery has been his obsessive liaison with the adolescent male prostitute Giton; indeed, squabbles over Giton have serially alienated Encolpius from the (equally debauched, equally polymorphous) Ascyltus and Eumolpus. In the precinct of Priapus in Croton, in an atmosphere that differs in its spiritual quality from that of all the novel’s foregoing episodes, Circe tells Encolpius, who has adopted the ritual name of Polyaenas: “If you wish to get better, send Giton away. You will get your strength back, I can tell you.”
Petronius, an Epicurean and a materialist, believes that while the gods exist they nevertheless forbear to intervene in human affairs. Epicureans are virtual non-believers in the gods, as one might say. Petronius does, however, believe in measure, one of the central tenets of Epicureanism. The “Croton” episode of the tale strongly suggests, especially in its ritualistic ambiance, that the fatalism, by which Encolpius has in effect excused and justified the behaviors that have led to his existential impasse, cannot withstand critical scrutiny. Fatalism foolishly justifies the moral flaccidity exemplified in the humiliating lack of a physical response that dogs the story’s narrator; it supplies the pretence that consequences have no cause. Circe’s words – and she appears to hold out to Encolpius the prospect of a marriage of some type – imply that where libido has gotten the miscreant into his troubles, a regimen of stricter behavior conscientiously adopted will salvage him from them.
III. The centuries of Late Antiquity were those, as Murray notes, of “a failure of nerve,” which is indeed the title of one of his chapters. The original Greek Enlightenment of the Classical period, summed up in a literature that reaches from Homer to the philosophers, was supremely confident in its power of knowledge and in its understanding of the natural, the supernatural, and the human worlds. Wars for empire sapped the will of the Classical world, however; while relentless sophistic criticism undermined trust in inherited concepts, with superstitions from the East filling the conceptual vacuum thus created. For Murray, the “Mystery Cults” and related movements of Late Antiquity epitomize the phenomenon. They represent for Murray a retreat from rational religion in a widespread “loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of normal human effort,” as well as in “despair of patient inquiry,” all accompanied by “an intensifying of certain spiritual emotions.” In the second of its two aspects in Satyricon, the Priapus cult functions as a salvation cult, offering to the convert an exit from the unpleasant brothel-labyrinth or Cyclops-cave of a degraded social scene.
What of Lucius Apuleius? In addition to his talent as a storyteller, Apuleius was a lecturer on Plato’s philosophy and worked as a civil adjudicator in his North African hometown of Madaura. Apuleius also held sacerdotal office in one of the most prominent of the Second Century mysteries, those associated with the cult of the syncretic goddess Isis, whom worshippers identified with Aphrodite, Demeter, Artemis, Hera, and every other motherly deity.
The Golden Ass: Or the Metamorphoses is an allegory of salvation by means of spiritual trial under the redeeming mercy of the Great Goddess. Apuleius’ novel rollicks along comically and shares many satirical traits with its Petronian precursor-text. In The Golden Ass, Apuleius depicts a world poisoned by its vices and redoubled in its morbidity by a pervasive exculpatory invocation of Fate, an agency that the rabble and the upper class alike commonly nominate as the supreme principle of a grab-as-can existence. Under the doctrine of Fate, desire propels the subject like an irresistible destiny, and no one – or hardly anyone – so much as tries to fight against immediately satisfying his basest urges in any way that he can. People throng the arenas to see the spectacle of gladiatorial combat; they crowd the brothels to liaise with prostitutes. People cheat, betray, and murder one another; and they insouciantly debase the traditional forms (morals, customs) that betoken an older, healthier, non-disgruntled world, in which responsibility and obligation trumped mere appetite. As in Satyricon, so, too, in The Golden Ass there are many telling references to The Odyssey.
The protagonist of The Golden Ass, a younger version of his author who bears his author’s given name of Lucius, might be any twenty-something male recently graduated from a North American state university. A college teacher, I meet many Lucii every semester and I once was one, myself. Exercising the privileges that go with affluence Lucius, who stems from a wealthy family, has journeyed from Corinth, his home, to remote Hypata in Thessaly in search of a particular type amusement. The Thessaly of The Golden Ass is a region of Greece renowned for witchcraft, theriomorphism, and other mantic shenanigans, in which Lucius takes a powerful but unhealthy interest. Sorcery has a peculiar role in The Golden Ass. Like rhetoric in Satyricon, where we meet many a honey-tongued seducer, sorcery or magic is a means of manipulating the human scene for despotically libido-driven purposes. It is a technique of acquiring the chattels of other people, or of subduing those people to one’s will, by naked compulsion. Lucius, for libidinous reasons, is eager to acquire such techniques. He speaks of the “delirium of impatience” under whose impetus he positively longs “to take a running leap into the abyss,” as he says, of occult instruction. The Golden Ass tells its story retrospectively, so that these descriptions take on a confessional significance.
No sooner has Lucius arrived at his host Milo’s establishment in Hypata, but he violates the ancient rules of hospitality by starting a torrid sexual affair with the scullery maid Photis. She is a willing respondent. Photis divulges to Lucius that her employer’s wife, Pamphile, is a capo di tutti capi of witches in the region, renowned and feared for her mastery of magic. Under Photis’ urging, Lucius spies on the midnight transformation of Pamphile into an owl, but when he tries the trick himself Photis has confused which magical ointment of her mistress is which. The calamitous upshot of her confusion sees the headlong experimenter changed, not into a wise owl, but into a braying ass. It is the “abyss” indeed! Undone by his “curiosity,” for which another word is libido, Lucius begins his yearlong tribulation in asinine form under the blows of sadistic masters and amidst the terrors of a lawless world. Lucius’ transgression is the same as Encolpius’ transgression in Satyricon.
Lucius not only suffers personally in consequence of his declension of spirit; he must also bear witness close at hand to the insouciant folly of many others. Impressing him into service as a pack animal, the robbers take him to their mountain lair. Lucius learns by eavesdropping about the bloody calamities that undo these criminals as they swagger about in their depredations. The robber-chieftain Lamachus, for example, get his hand nailed to a door while attempting to pick the lock; in unseemly haste his cohorts chop off the hand in order to facilitate their captain’s escape. He, fearing that the loss now wholly unfits him for his thieving ways, falls on his sword in despair. Lucius learns also of the rampancy of lascivious desire. Lascivious desire breeds both sexual betrayal and cold-blooded murder – by those whose lust bends ever to novel objects of their old, now encumbering partners in oath and life. In one instance, which may stand for many others, a newlywed stepmother simmers in lubricity for her eldest stepson; when he rightly rebuffs her, she murders the lad’s younger brother and then falsely accuses the one whose moral rectitude made him averse to her in the first place.
Again, Lucius has his eyes opened to a universal and morally repellent hunger for cruel entertainments that assuage the most brutal propensities of a degraded audience. One instance is the quasi-sacrificial “Festival of Laughter” in Hypata. This annual affair deludes an innocent – usually an unsuspecting visitor to the town – into thinking that the magistrates plan to torture and kill him for a crime he never committed, but for which the townspeople have conspiratorially framed him. Other instances are the many pornographic-sacrificial displays put on in the hippodromes by wealthy big-men who hope thereby to curry favor among the plebes and so pave the way to a greater share in political power, with its tempting perquisites. In one episode near the end of the narrative, just before Isis extends mercy to the long-suffering penitent, Lucius foresees having to copulate in the arena with a condemned prostitute-murderess. At the climax of the performance both the beast of burden and the lady-criminal will become live meat for a sportive-punitive unleashing of ravenous beasts.
Everyone including Lucius blames the painful consequences of his own ugly deeds, or of his own perverse quirks, on “Fate.” Lucius for his part would derive his catastrophic metamorphosis, not from his rash dabbling in Pamphile’s dangerous pharmacy, but (as he says) from the “perverse malignity of my Fortune” and from “Fate.” He would derive the items of his subsequent penitential itinerary from “Fortune… totally blind,” “Cruel Fortune,” and “the disastrous rage of Fortune.” Yet in many of the calamities that he observes, that befall other people, he can descry at work, not a fickle deity, but rather such entirely human phenomena as “the baleful glance of envy,” “cruel envy,” and “curiosity” as the “undoing” of the impetuous agent.
At the heart of The Golden Ass (to return to it) readers find the inset story of “Cupid and Psyche.” Cupid falls in love with Psyche against the wishes of his mother, Venus. Cupid marries Psyche, and brings her to his airy palace, where she will live a blessed life provided that she obeys but one injunction. That injunction is: Never to look at her husband, who visits her exclusively at night, when darkness hides his identity. Now part of the story is that Psyche has two evil sisters. These siblings at first equate Psyche’s absence with death, about which they make a great public display of hypocritical sorrow and piety. When they learn of Psyche’s new status, however, they seethe with covetousness. “If you should hear their lamentations,” says Cupid to Psyche, “do not answer or even look that way, or you will bring about heavy grief for me and for yourself sheer destruction.”
Admitted against counsel, the siblings work on their sister’s guilelessness to incite her against her husband. Breaking the oath of secrecy casts Psyche down. She must undergo an ordeal until proving her virtue Venus herself salvages the girl and countenances her son’s wedded bliss. The sisters perish. The pronouncement that Apuleius makes about them indeed implies something startling about his view of the world. After their first visit with Psyche, as Apuleius writes, “the worthy sisters on their return home were now inflamed by the poison of envy.” Looking for a formula to justify their jealousy, one sister says to the other: “You see the blindness, the cruelty and injustice of Fortune… content, it would seem, that sisters of the same parents should fare so differently.” By the associative property, these sentences reveal that the much invoked Fate or Fortune of the novel’s characters does not exist. Or rather that it exists not as an omnipotent divinity but simply as a projection of the envy, a form of libido and thus also a type of poison, that impels into disaster those who give way measurelessly to their own rabid drives.
IV. Saint Augustine (354 – 430 AD), who knew and admired The Golden Ass, grappled with the same moral phenomena as the Second Century Neoplatonist in codifying the Biblical theology that he then bequeathed so informatively to medieval Christendom. Augustine’s Confessions resemble both Satyricon and The Golden Ass in any number of ways, for the Saint’s autobiography is, like both of them, a first-person narrative of embittered wandering and of spiritual, if not of material, suffering; and the Confessions tell a story of conversion that turns on a decisive rejection of fatalism. Let the discussion of the many details be deferred to a less crowded occasion than the present one. More important than the details are a few salient facts about Augustine’s life. These will help in elucidating the Saint’s case against fatalism. In his adolescence and early manhood, Augustine was a creature of his rudest appetites, much as is Petronius’ or Apuleius’ main character. He habituated the brothels of Thagaste, his native town, and of Carthage, where he found his first professional employment as a teacher of rhetoric.
Augustine also experimented with religion, investing no little faith in astrology and associating himself for ten years with Manichaeism. The former is the fatalistic science par excellence, while the latter is a popular theology of the time that articulates a doctrine to make of existence the opposite of what the common Jewish and Christian view makes of it: A wretched condition to the meaninglessness of which an evil sub-deity has condemned people rather than a benevolent Creation over which God puts humanity in stewardship. Augustine liked theatricals and gladiatorial games as much as he liked brothel crawling, but during the long transformation of his character, he came to see that in their ubiquity pornographic display and blood sport were all at once symptoms of an old morality in calamitous deliquescence and primary influences on many an individual tragedy, including in all likelihood his own.
Murray includes Augustine in what he calls the spiritual “failure of nerve” of Late Antiquity. The religiosity of Late Antiquity strikes Murray metaphorically as “a wilderness of weeds… rank and luxuriant and sometimes extremely beautiful, with a half-strangled garden flower gleaming here and there in the tangle of them.” Murray cites the case of the Stoics. Although the Stoics began with a commitment to logic and due skepticism, latterly they “found themselves admitting or insisting that the… consensus [of opinion] proved the existence of daemons, of witchcraft, of divination.” A careful reading of Augustine’s Confessions will, however, reveal a logical thinker who knows how to deploy a syllogism, a defender of natural science as the basis of essential knowledge, and a skeptic of luxuriant or fantastic theology. Augustine insists, for example, that much of the Old Testament needs to be interpreted allegorically rather than literally. Indeed, he writes at one point that taking Scripture literally is a sure way to murder belief. Importantly, Augustine shares with Petronius and Apuleius an anti-Fatalistic insistence on moral causality.
If envy were one toxic assault on happiness, as it is in Satyricon and The Golden Ass, then mimesis – or, as the guidance counselors say, “peer pressure” – could be another. Aristotle averred in his Poetics that human beings are the most mimetic, or imitative, of animals. In Confessions, Augustine tells the tale of his friend in spiritual exploration Alypius, who had gradually and painfully weaned himself from addiction to the ruddy spectacle of the arena. One day in Milan, however, Alypius met up accidentally with unreformed old companions on their way to the hippodrome; they cajoled him to accompany them. Alypius closed his eyes so as not to see the coup de grace, but he could not stop his ears. “When one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that… he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim he desired to see had been struck in his body.” Augustine’s “audience” is the social ambiance always present to all of us; it is the democratic peerage.
It should be noted that Augustine in no way excuses Alypius’ lapse, on the notion, say, that Alypius could somehow not properly help himself. Alypius might have known better than to yield to his “curiosity” and he might have taken heed not to overestimate his resistance to imitative Schadenfreude. Lucius, in The Golden Ass, knew better than to dabble with substances he did not understood, but he dabbled with them anyway. Encolpius, in Satyricon, knew better than to spy on rites in a private temple, where his eye had no business in lingering, but he spied on them anyway. A deliberate perversity always lies at the inception of our lapse from the middle way – this Augustine, after a long struggle, concluded – and thus at the inception of our misery. Augustine’s was a struggle, particularly, with Manichaeism, one of whose tenets asserted that, for the elect, sin is impossible because, while the body might stoop to pollute itself, the spirit remained immaculate. To the Manichaean elect, all things were allowed. Matter being evil the body sinned merely through an intrinsic, material proneness. “I can’t help myself,” the body might say under the doctrine, thereby exonerating the spirit. Manichaeism is thus particularly a dogma of determinism; but it incorporated fatalism, too, in its vast astrological credulity.
Augustine rehearses the long train of syllogisms by which he rejected Manichaean determinism in Book VII of Confessions. Here I will jump to his conclusion: as “whatsoever is, is good,” it follows that “evil, then, the origin of which I had been seeking, has no substance at all; for if it were a substance, it would be good.” In stating that evil is not a substance, Augustine wipes away every excuse that invokes either luck or inexorability to explain an individual’s condition. The individual, possessing free will, is himself responsible for his lapses, his transgressions, and his unhappiness.
Are modern people so different from their ancient counterparts? Consider the movies that pack college students into the multiplexes on the weekends. These are special effects driven exercises in a type of entertainment in its way even more repulsive than the worst of gladiatorial spectacle, depicting slow torture and homicide in detailed close-up. Often a sado-masochistic sexual element weaves its way in and out of the violence, as in the moneymaking franchise called Saw. No one really dies, but the appetite that the images assuage is the exactly same one formerly fed on split bodies and spilt blood in the coliseums and hippodromes. As for that electronic prodigy the Internet, it is the digital equivalent of Satyricon’s speakeasy night-scene: All roads lead, apparently, to the virtual equivalent of the bordello. We need Petronius, Apuleius, and the good old Bishop of Hippo badly. We need them now, to remind us that it is a big fat lie when we petulantly shout, “I can’t help myself.”
[An earlier version of this article appeared in The Intercollegiate Review in 2004; the present version is extensively rewritten.]