Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Against Polycarp [Part One]

When is it that a lie is no longer taken to be an untruth but a divinely-inspired 'reorganization' of history?  This, my friends, is really one of those 'unanswerable mysteries' as it is difficult to explain or justify the fickle nature of public perception.

It's like asking when exactly was Hugh Hefner transformed from being cast as a selfish pornographer who exploits women to being some kind of revered cultural icon?  At one point does a criminal stop being a law breaker and is instead taken to be as a symbol of protest or an agent of social change?

The truth only remains inviolable as long as we have faithful guardians safeguarding the facts.

It is only in an age of declining values that we start making claims about a 'free market of ideas' taking care of itself.  The truth is that there is no second chance at virginity.  Once authenticity is compromised in a society it is very difficult - if not impossible - to reestablish the necessary preconditions for belief in the system.

This is precisely why the standard penalties for dishonesty, unfaithfulness or innovation within a religious tradition are traditionally so harsh.  Death.  The truth simply can't be perpetuated if everyone is allowed to invent his or her versions of the facts.

To this end we have a most remarkable situation emerging in the middle of the second century which scarcely gets enough attention in scholarly circles.  The original truth that had guided and defined Christianity for seventy seven years had been compromised with the arrival in Rome of a most perplexing individual - a towering figure in the history of ideas whose story has never been told before.

There is a reason of course why this biography has never been written.  The man we are about to devote three hundred or so printed pages to, doesn't even have an actual recorded name.  Those who study the history of Christian religion identify him as 'Polycarp' and feel very confident that they know exactly who he is when they pronounce his name.  Yet these people are so used to handling, weighing and describing things without historical foundation they more closely resemble young children pretending to be scholars than adults engaged in critical thinking.

'Polycarp' quite simply isn't the name of an individual.  It is an absurdly literal Greek rendering of a traditional title of a leader within the Syrian Church. The use of the Aramaic title Maphryānā - i.e. 'many fruit' or 'consecrator' - undoubtedly goes back to pre-Christian times as the Biblical name Ephraim has always been associated with the coming of a messianic leader in Israel.

We can credit the adoption of this traditional title as something resembling a proper name to one of our strangers devoted pupils - a man known to Patristic scholars as 'Irenaeus of Lyons.'  Irenaeus who likely never so much as set foot in the south of France, probably spent most of his time in Rome.  He claims to have met our stranger in a royal court in Asia Minor and speaks of a continued presence of Catholic Christians in the Imperial court of Commodus, the wicked Emperor who ruled for most of the time that Irenaeus was active writing about Church dogma and history.

Irenaeus not only adopts the traditional title Maphryānā as our strangers proper name but interestingly only references this supposed appellation only once during his massive one thousand page, five volume work the Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called - a text so dense that it will instantly cure even the most sleep deprived individuals of insomnia.  The inherent strangeness of our Stranger is most perfectly demonstrated by the fact that even Irenaeus himself most often refers to him simply as ὁ πρεσβύτερος - 'the presbyter.'

So now we are back to our original problem.  How do you write a biography of a man who had no real name?  The truth is that we should really pity poor old Irenaeus as he was trying to do much more than simply write a couple hundred pages on the man.  Irenaeus was trying to found nothing short of a worldwide 'Catholic' tradition based on the claims and memories of this mysterious individual.  How could anyone expect to have people give over their lives to a Church built around the life of a saint whose name wasn't known to anyone - not even Irenaeus himself?

Yet obscurity does come in handy in certain situations.  They say that acting is based on burying your inherited self into a new identity.  The great Sir John Gielgud once noted that "acting is half shame, half glory. Shame at exhibiting yourself, glory when you can forget yourself."  In short, the person who wants to take on other personalities must first learn to bury his own identity.  This is undoubtedly one reason why one noted pagan detractor, Lucian of Samosata, identifies him not only as 'Peregrinus' (Stranger) but more often that not by the addition of the name 'Proteus' (Demonax, 21) or sometimes as simply 'Proteus' (adu. Indoct 14).

Proteus was a figure from Greek mythology, a sea god who could foretell the future, but, who could change his shape his form at will. It is from this attribute that we now derive our adjective protean with means "capable of assuming many forms." The reason our stranger was identified with this mythological figure quite frankly is because he is accused by Lucian of forging writings in other peoples name.  It is worth noting that this characteristic has also been detected with respect to the figure whom Irenaeus identifies for us as 'Polycarp.'

There seems to be always lurking in the background of his very public life a strange obsession with inventing fictional apostolic characters and then attributing an ever expanding number of written texts to them.  Patristic scholars from the last three centuries go out of their way of course to avoid accusing one of the revered Fathers of our Church of counterfeiting texts and identities but the name 'Polycarp' is nevertheless almost always associated with most of the questionable literature in our canon and related early Christian literature.  The false Pauline letters I and II Timothy and Titus are almost inevitably attributed to him as are - to a less degree - the canonical texts of the Acts of the Apostles, the Pastoral Stratum of interpolations in 1 Peter and the Pauline Corpus, and even as the final Redactor of John. Patristic texts likely to have come from his hand include the Ignatian corpus, the Letter to Diognetus and many others.

While these names of texts and individuals likely mean very little to most people today they are nothing short of the foundational building blocks that became established as the holy and great Catholic Church of Rome.  There can be no doubt that our Stranger was the driving force behind the Roman community which eventually would not only define Christianity but Western civilization.  But the manner in which his story is preserved by the Catholic tradition does little to allow us to witness his true genius.

The standard story which emerges from the official account of his martyrdom tells us that during an Imperial persecution during the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Polycarp decided to die as a fiery martyr.  While the Herod the chief of police tries to deny his request for execution he somehow manages to force the issue and his martyrdom is secured. The existing tradition sets the scene as follows - "As Polycarp entered into the Stadium a voice came to him from heaven: 'Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man'. And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice."

Eventually our martyr is tied to a stake and a bonfire is lit but his flesh is miraculously unharmed. Seeing that this the executioner was ordered to stab him at which point a dove and a great quantity of blood came streaming out of Polycarp's body and he gave up the ghost. His bones were eventually recovered and through the narrative account of the circumstances surrounding his martyrdom undoubtedly written by his student Irenaeus he became one of the most celebrated saints in the Catholic canon. His annual memorial is celebrated on February 23rd and was the original feast day in the orthodox tradition.

Of course this account can hardly be taken for a 'history' of the real man behind the mask of a saint.  As  William Smith in his classic Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography notes - "of the early history of this eminent father we have no trustworthy account."  Indeed it is only when we turn to the hostile narrative of Lucian of Samosata that we actually gain some insight into his personality and his motivations.

Our stranger it seems was a philosopher - something reflected also in Charles Evan Hill's study.  Lucian identifies him specifically as being of the Cynic school but he might well been misled by the traditional manner of Christian dress in the period.  Lucian's account also connects him with Elea (Morte 19,41) and given that the word peregrinus is only the Latin equivalent of the Greek ξένος (xenos) one must strongly suspect that he presented himself as a kind of resurrected 'Stranger' from the Platonic dialogues

We should remember that it is precisely this Eleatic Stranger who instructs Socrates about the gnostic principle.  It was through the figure of 'the Stranger' that Plato advocated the radical idea that the truly great divinely appointed ruler could only emerge if he suspended the authority of the old laws and instead tapped into γνωστικὴ ἐπιστήμη (i.e. "knowledge to influence and control") which guided the framers of laws and social conventions of former ages.

As Jewett notes in the translation to his English translation of Plato's Politicos, the context in which the concept of the gnostic is introduced is that of a licence of freedom from these convention:

The imaginary ruler, whether God or man, is above the law and is a law to himself and others. Among the Greeks as among the Jews, the law was a sacred name; the gift of God, the bond of states. But in the Politikos of Plato, as in the New Testament, the word (nomos) has also become the symbol of an imperfect good, which is almost an evil. The law sacrifices the individual to the universal, and is the tyranny of the many over the few (compare Republic). It has fixed rules which are the props of order, and will not swerve or bend in the extreme cases. It is the beginning of political society, but there is something higher - an intelligent ruler, whether God or man, who is able to adapt himself to the endless varieties of circumstances. [p. 34]

I believe this is essential for understanding our Stranger. He certainly did not understand himself as a counterfeiter or someone engaged in the production of lies but instead as a true gnostic who - through the agency of the Holy Spirit - was connected to a higher form of truthfulness than mere historical chronography.

Our Stranger knew the truth in an essentially gnostic manner. He was connected to some supernal source which allowed him to bypass the convention of established and accepted reality. We should never lose sight of this Platonic context to help explain the emergence of the founder of our familiar religious tradition for, as I will demonstrate shortly, Platonism was quite certainly the original context of Christianity itself in its original home in Alexandria.

In any event, we have I believed sketched out the beginnings of our journey to rediscover a most interesting historical individual, a man best described as an actor who so totally devoted himself to his craft that he buried his own identity.  One may even surmise that an individual who could so completely abandon his most precious treasure - viz. his own name - would have little difficulty justifying the reshaping of history.  What is the recorded account of history other than the arbitrary assignment of meaning to an essentially nebulous characteristic.  In this it functions as a name does within an individual, exchanging the potential of the infinite inherent in each soul for the security of an inherited predetermined value.

Above all else our Stranger was fascinated by the endless possibilities of the human imagination.  It is the vision of all artists in all ages.  The problem of course is that the orthodoxies can't be built around the fluctuations of artistic inspiration.  This is precisely why the real historical figure behind the Church's earliest and most revered saint became such a problem that they eventually had to reform this multi-formed Proteus.

Next Chapter 

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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