May 30, 2013

Julian And JFK: The Tragic Heroes of Rome And America

"Julian the Apostate Presiding at a Conference of Sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875" (Source: Wikipedia).

I. The Narcissistic Nature of The Hero, The Western Conception of The Hero, And The Role of The Hero In Culture - An Excerpt From A Lecture By Professor S. Georgia Nugent Called, "Heroes, Heroines, and The Wisdom of Myth."
"If the epic hero strives for immortality in song, recognizing that a thousand shapes of death surround him, and he cannot become a god, the tragic hero dares to strive with the gods in his own lifetime, to lift himself up to the level of the immortals. Both, however, court death and win thereby eternal fame in their separate ways.

Now, let me return to Becker's formation: to become conscious of what one is doing, to earn the feeling of heroism, is the main self-analytical problem of life. Becker suggests, as we've already seen, that heroism is grounded in a fundamentally narcissistic desire. And it would certainly be easy, I think, or I hope it would be easy for you to see in that exposition of those possible heroic choices of the Greeks, that there is a certain narcissism involved there. If I undertake this heroic course I will live forever in some form, in song.

Or, in the tragic hero's case, perhaps an even greater narcissism; I would rather die under my own will than submit to the will of others, even the gods. This could account for the basic pattern in heroism of extraordinary achievement, namely, the narcissistic desire to be singular, to count, to have one's life count in some sense. And I think that formulation of Becker's is attractive in that way. But, what about the form that achievement takes in the sort of stories I've been alluding to.

In the Greek heroic code, the form of outstanding achievement for which the hero strives is very often, if not always, murderous. Yes, sometimes, occasionally, there is a hero who is a city founder, a civilizer, often seen in the sense of making the world safe for civilization. Heracles or Theseus is sometimes seen as this type of figure, going out and combating monsters and dangers in our world so that the rest of us can in fact build and foster a civilization. However, even this perhaps positive heroic role obviously involves often a kind of clean-up operation, and, therefore, yet again, the destruction of others.

The answers to why this should be the most prominent mode of heroism in our Western culture as formulated paradigmatically by the Greeks but is still with us, the answer to why that should be our preferred form is unclear, I think, and is currently under study by a number of contemporary scholars. Again, one might see a partial answer from psychoanalysis. That eliminating others, destroying others, is necessary in order to clear a space for the self. There might be some way in which that motivates the hero's destructive impulses.

And a partial answer has come as well from feminists who have investigated, I'm thinking here particularly of Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan, who have investigated the complex and ambivalent relation of the male and the female to generativity. I think one of the nicest formulations here, most interesting and kind of disturbing formulations, has been in a very interesting article by Nancy Houston. Houston suggests that there is a deep and abidingly true meaning for our culture in an old proverb that she discovered which says, 'How long will man go on fighting wars? As long as women have children.' The sense being here that there is a kind of compensatory balance. Obviously, the most literal sense is something about cannon fodder, that as long as women continue to bear then men will continue to fight and there will be individuals to fight.

But, I think Houston has explored this in a more interesting way when she suggests that men have elaborated the glory of battle as a counter-balance to the feminine domain of childbirth, and, specifically, to invent for themselves, I quote her, "a suffering as dignified, as meritorious, and as spectacular in its results as childbirth." If women have the power to give life on this view, at least men can take it away, and find their heroism in that act."   
II. Julian The Tragic Hero - An Excerpt From, "The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World," By Adrian Murdoch.
"But we do not just remember Julian because he is a three-dimensional character. A mystique developed around the emperor because of the mythic nature of his demise, something which continues to intrigue. Julian has in many ways become a figure of far greater potency in death than he ever was alive. Who was that mysterious cavalryman? The Persian king offered a reward for Julian's killer, yet it was never claimed. Within a few years various suggestions had been made which range from the plausible to the utterly fanciful. They emerged almost at once and make Julian's death the classical equivalent of the JFK assassination - the cavalryman became a fourth-century spearman on the grassy knoll. Even contemporaries admitted as much. 'One and the same story is not told by all, but different accounts are reported and made up by different people - both of those present at the battle and those not present,' wrote one former friend.

For many pagans, Julian's death had parallels with that of his spiritual mentor Alexander the Great - indeed he had not wholly discouraged those comparisons during his lifetime - at its most basic level with the war in Asia Minor itself. One historian writing only fifty years or so after the emperor's death, suggested that Julian believed that he was possessed of Alexander's soul.

But Julian never did comprehensively defeat the Persian king and he never did conquer Asia, and this is a complementary part of the attraction. Julian failed, quite magnificently and irredeemably. The romantic failure has always been attractive in Western thought and not only did few of Julian's innovations survive his death, many were starting to unravel even before he died. Just as when reading Shakespeare's Hamlet, Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther or Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, the reader of any biography of the emperor knows that Julian is doomed from the beginning. He stops being an emperor and starts being a tragic hero.

The dark potent of Julian's death is brought into sharp relief because, unlike literature, there are so few moments in history which can be regarded as definitive watersheds. Take the fall of the Roman empire as an example. When did it finally collapse? Was it on 24 August 410 when Rome was sacked by Alaric the Visigoth? Was it on 4 September 476 when the last of the Western Roman emperors, the thirteen-year-old Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by barbarians and sent off to live in peace and obscurity with his relatives near Naples? Or was it on 29 May 1453, when Constantine XI, the final Byzantine emperor, died on the ramparts of Byzantium clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary to his chest as the Turks sacked the city?

In a way all of them are right. But with the death of Julian we have something different. To all intents and purposes we can say that paganism died as a credible political and social force in the last days of June 363.

As soon as the man becomes myth, he becomes depersonalised. It was in his role as an opponent of Christianity that Julian not only became best known, but known at all. As such he was lumped together with all the other opponents of the Church. When, in the aftermath of the murder of Thomas Beckett in 1170, a French archbishop wrote to the pope to complain about Henry II, he refers to the actions of the English king as exhibiting the 'wickedness of Nero, the perfidiousness of Julian and even the sacrilegious treachery of Judas.'

The emperor became a touchstone for man's relationship with God and the Church throughout history. In the unwavering Christian societies from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century it was a black-and-white affair. One of the biographers of Charlemagne refers to Julian simply as 'hateful in the eyes of God', while John Milton in his pamphlet on the freedom of the press written in 1644 called the emperor 'the subtlest enemy to our faith.'

As society's relationship with God began to change during the Enlightenment, so too Julian's position shifted in the popular mind. The emperor's apostasy fitted Voltaire's idea of abstract deism as well as his anti-clericalism. The author of Candide famously dismissed a contemporary biography of the emperor by the Abbe de Bleterie with: 'above all you must be dispassionate and that is not something that ever applies to a priest'. It is not hard to imagine Julian saying the same thing. The Roman emperor was being reborn as a creature of the Enlightenment and began to stand for the liberation of man. Most influentially of all, Edward Gibbon made Julian the hero of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." [Source: Murdoch, A."The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World." Sutton Publishing. 2003. Pg. 5-7].    
III. Brief Thoughts On Emperor Julian And President JFK 

I like and admire both Emperor Julian and President Kennedy. Emperor Julian's appreciative view towards the pagan past, his wide intellect, religious ambitions, philosophical goals, energy for life, glorious death in battle, are all worthy to be remembered.

And JFK is one of mankind's greatest heroes. He did what he could to save the human race from nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis by not listening to the trigger happy people in the military and CIA and instead listening to his heart and talking directly to the Soviet leadership to straighten the matter out peacefully.

Emperors of Rome: Julian the Apostate. Source: Adrian Murdoch.