Wednesday, June 7, 2017

When Nero married Pythagoras: The Last Act in the Death of The West

Image result for nero i pythagorasI cannot help but return for a moment to the last political battle of the so-called "culture wars" in the United States; the debate over "gay marriage" as I re-read Quo Vadis and ponder Petronius's exclamation that Rome had reached bottom when the Emperor married his boy - the last event prior to Rome collapsing in flames. Is this where the West is today?

Petronius's disgust deserves consideration. Certainly it was not that the arbiter elegantiarum considered homosexuality evil. Petronius did not believe in the gods, nor in good and evil. He was an aesthetic at heart, and his tastes were the product of Greek and Roman learning. If anything, Petronius viewed homosexuality with the same irony that colored his overall perspective. In modern terms, Petronius was the most "tolerant" (and conscientiously indulgent) of all of the characters in the book.

It should therefore immediately strike us as curious why the condemnation of Nero's marriage to the boy Pythagoras came not from mouth of the stern Christian Kryspus nor anyone else between the two extremes of that pinnacle of Christian chastity and the one character in the book who remained unto the end immune to the Christian spirit, died a Roman and lived a Greek.

To begin to understand this, we must recognize that Petronius percieved Nero's greatest vice as the sullying of Roman power. Petronius correctly blamed Nero for believing himself a Greek when he was too stupid and ugly to be one, and using his office to compel the whole world to applaud him as the highest of artistic talents. In Roman terms, this was the total corruption of political authority. Nero's antics made a mockery of Rome. They were not only ugly, but impolitic. The height of Nero's artistic achievement - the burning of Rome - was likewise the low point of Neronic statesmanship: the ruler who destroys his principality rather than preserve and expand it.

Petronius did what he could to influence Nero's tastes, but the Emperor would have him as no more than the most clever sycophant in the imperial court. No act, however dreadful to morality or Petronius's sense of good manners ("If I wanted us to catch sight of meat, I would have taken us to the butcher's!") elicited such strong condemnation as the marriage to Pythagoras. Indeed, neither Nero's slaughter of his own mother or anyone else caused Petronius to express that Rome had fallen to its' lowest point.

Of note also is the fact that it was not homosexuality as such that disgusted Petronius, but the concept of homosexual marriage. "Pythagoras even dressed up as the bride!" To Petronius's aesthetic taste, this was not even bad comedy, it was a combination of political weakness and absurdity. One could have lovers, but a lover was not a wife. One could have slaves, but a slave was not a friend. One could have boys, but a boy was not a wife, even if Nero put a dress on him.

A Roman who isolated himself from his equals and entered into friendship with his slaves would be a laughing stock and a practitioner of ugly things. Slaves could not be friends. Free Romans were made for friendship. Likewise marriage - even in the imperfect Roman view, so distant from the Christian sacrament - was nevertheless a serious and manly affair. Marriage meant possession of a woman, of either her beauty, her dowry or her noble titles. No man would dress a boy up to parade around as his wife in public, unless in the circus. To do so was degrading.

Petronius's disgust then, though primarily aesthetic and not moral in nature, is above all the product of his self-love as a Roman and a man. As a Roman it is vile to consider the ruler as a ridiculous fool marrying his gay lover for all the world to see. As a man, it is vile to consider that anyone should pretend to elevate a boy to the place of a woman. Real men, in Petronius's view - in the Roman view - do not prefer pebbles to diamonds. Real men, if they choose comedy or farce, do not pretend that it is tragedy or high drama. Real men, if they delight in excess, do not announce to one and all that they are moderate. Nero, whether motivated by humor or otherwise, did something ridiculous - unworthy of a man, of a Roman, of Caesar - of a god. Were he no more than a wealthy patrician or one of the augustinians then perhaps he would simply earn a reputation for playing the fool - but he is Caesar, and politics, no more than nature, is a cruel and demanding thing.

This bring us to the following question: are we at the same point that Rome was then? The marriage of Nero and Pythagoras was the last act of comical absurdity before the flames engulfed the city. Is this where the West is today? There is no reason why marriage should apply to homosexuals. That it does is a function of the fact that the West does not understand marriage. This can be clearly inferred from the divorce rate in Western countries. Having, like Nero's Rome, not only long ago ceased to see marriage in religious terms, being ignorant of the sacrament of marriage (here Nero's Rome had the excuse of not knowing Christ as fully as we have had the opportunity to know Him), it is little wonder that marriage devolved in the modern West into a meaningless legal and social convention and therefore became just another law which, like all laws, must be applied equally to all cases.

Yet of course, marriage is not just another law. Marriage is, not only in the Greek or Roman sense, but especially in the Christian sense, a means for the perpetuation of civilization and the fundamental unit of human happiness in society. It is the realm in which good citizenship can be be demonstrated and, when sanctified as a sacrament, it is the realm which brings the individual man and woman closest to the experience of God's eternal love. Greek and Roman culture were not prudish about homosexuality, but there was sense enough in them to distinguish men who had boys or lovers from men who had wives. As this distinction blurred and wives, lovers and boys became interchangeable - so every other political and social norm blurred until in the end, the Circus and the Polis were likewise interchangeable.

Petronius would probably be the first to come to the defense of the classical ideals of love and friendship between men, but he is rightly disgusted by homosexual marriage. Sienkiewicz is also wise to put this disgust in the mouth of the one character in the book who does not become a Christian, who is in fact an opponent of all moral thought and dedicated only to questions of taste. Sienkiewicz seems to be saying that the modern West is not only immoral, politically suicidal and stupid - just as Nero's Rome was - it is above all ugly. And there is nothing uglier than pretending that two men make a marriage.

(Let it also be noted that the image which accompanies these aphorisms comes from an article, in which a defense of gay marriage is made by citing Nero's marriage to Pythagoras as something good. Will the author then tell us that burning down the United States of America is the next good we should expect?)

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