Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Eutopia And Sorrows

In the timeline of Poul Andeson's science fiction short story, "Eutopia":

Alexander the Great recovered from his fever in Babylon;
chastened by it, he spent the rest of a long life strengthening his empire;
they had a scientific revolution back then but retained religious tolerance;
thus, the world was spared the Roman Empire, Christianity and the Dark Ages.

It sounds like a good timeline although the shock ending of the story is that, in the modern period, they practice child abuse. (There is always something wrong.)

In the timeline of Anderson's "The House of Sorrows":

the Jews did not return from Babylonian Captivity;
there was no post-Exilic Judaism or Christianity;
lacking a unifying monotheist ideology, Europe centuries later remains divided between warring polytheist factions.

I don't buy that one. Yes, the Roman Empire needed a monotheism but no, they did not need to receive it from Saul of Tarsus. They could have got it from Greek philosophy. The philosophers and the priests had become monotheists surrounded by popular polytheism. Jupiter-Zeus-Thor would have become the One God. The other Olympians and other pantheons would have been demoted to lesser/angelic roles. The word "deus/god," uncapitalized, could have been retained with a changed meaning.

With inputs from Homer, the dramatists, the Mystery religions, the philosophers, Virgil and local pantheons, there might have been a European equivalent of Hinduism: academic debate between proponents of monotheistic, monistic and materialist philosophical systems co-existing with continued polytheist practice at the popular level. Socrates and Caesar are two strong candidates for a sacrificial victim role. In fact, they are complementary: Greek spiritual/philosophical as against Roman military/political. Christianity, of necessity, changed its Messianism from military to spiritual ("not of this world") but Caesarism remained militaristic.

In our history:

the Jewish scriptural canon is the Law, the Prophets and the Writings and that third section includes the Wisdom literature;
the Christian Old Testament is the Jewish canon rearranged and reinterpreted;
the New Testament is new documents, the Gospels etc;
"Homer and the poets," essentially a Pagan canon, i.e., divinely inspired authorities on theology and morality, instead became the beginning of secular literature;
Homer and the poets, i.e., the dramatists, were followed by the philosophers, "lovers of wisdom," Plato even continuing the dramatic form, and by Virgil, essentially presenting a "New Testament" about Rome as the new Troy.

In my proposed alternative history:

the "Old Testament" would be Homer, the Poets and other Writings, including "love of wisdom";
the "New Testament" would be Virgil etc.

Far out.

Strangely, Babylon plays a crucial role in both of these alternative histories imagined by Anderson. The Jews returned from Babylon in our history but not in Anderson's. Alexander returned from Babylon in Anderson's history but not in ours. 

15 comments:

  1. Hi, Paul!

    Needless to say, I don't think it would have been good if we had been "spared" Christianity.

    But, I do agree with what you said about how the end of "Eutopia" was a shock. It certainly was to me when I first read that story in Harlan Ellison's first DANGEROUS VISIONS anthology. Poul Anderson wrote the story in such an ingenious way as to make us wonder if the society/alternate universe Iason Philippou came from was something to enviously desire--and THEN shocked us with something from that society, institutionalized child abuse/pederasty, to show us it was just as flawed as all other human societies.

    The very name, "Eutopia" is obviously meant, IMO, to remind us of St. Thomas More's UTOPIA. But where "utopia" means "no place" (that is, More's "ideal" society was fictional), "eutopia" means "good place." My view is that was meant ironically, due to the shocker ending.

    I'm reminded of how Anderson did something roughly similar in "The Fatal Fulfillment." That is, he used as a framework a scientist using experimental drugs/technology to explore possible alternate societies using only his mind. And, yet again, Anderson described one possibly "ideal" society before shocking us with an unexpected fatal flaw that imaginary society had.

    And, in yet another case, in "Welcome" Anderson chose to describe a future society in terms the POV character thought increasingly defective or unsociety. BUT in such a way that up to the very end, also described in ways the POV character understandable and tolerable. And THEN the very end of the story was a real shocker. I don't want to me more explicit because that would be a spoiler. (Smiles)

    Oh yes, I'm more than ever convinced Poul Anderson was a master short story writer!

    Sean

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  2. Correction: "unsociety" is an error. I meant "unsatisfactory."

    Sean

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  3. In both "Eutopia" and "Welcome", the shock is in the concluding word.

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  4. But what do you think of my alternative scriptural canon which closely parallels the official one?

    Moses:Homer;
    prophets:poets;
    writings, including Wisdom literature: later writings, including "love of wisdom";
    New Testament: Virgil.

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    1. Hi, Paul!

      True, it was admirable how Anderson was able to show the shock ending of "Eutopia" and "Welcome" so BRIEFLY.
      "[B]oys" for "Eutopia" and "coolie" for "Welcome."

      While your "alternate" scriptural canon was interesting, I found thinking of Homer as a Moses unconvincing for various reasons. Perhaps the most important being how UNWORTHY the Olympian pagan gods were of being worshiped. If I recall rightly, one of Anderson's Roman characters in THE GOLDEN SLAVE dismissed them with disdain as "those children."

      I don't know what you mean by "Poets," though. For Classical Greeks, Homer was the greatest of poets.

      I assume you mean by "writings" the works of Plato and Aristotle. There was certainly much Christians could admire and respect in those works. Esp. in Aristotle, who worked out so thoroughly arguments for the existence of God, or a First Cause, using reason alone. He was a huge influence on St. Thomas Aquinas and other Christian philosophers.

      And I found the idea of Vergil's AENEID as a pagan New Testament implausible, to say the least. For one thing, where is the Roman Empire and the Julio/Claudian dynasty he praised today? Both gone and one with Nineveh and Tyre. But the Church founded by Christ on the Rock of Peter still exists.

      Sean

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  5. What do I mean by "poets"? As I understand it, the phrase "Homer and the poets" was used to refer to what we would call "Homer and the dramatists " (Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles). It strikes me that this phrase exactly parallels "Moses and the prophets".

    The Pentateuch contains some anthropomorphic language. The Veda contains hymns to Indra etc who were not revered in later Hinduism. Thus, if Homer had been regarded as canonical, then some of his stories would have been reinterpreted, others would have been ignored and later texts would in practice have been treated as more authoritative.

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  6. In the Jewish canon, the third section after Moses and the prophets is called "the writings" so I applied the same phrase, "other writings", to Greek texts that come after the dramatists. This, of course, includes the philosophers who, I argue, could and would have provided a monotheism for the Roman Empire if Paul hadn't.

    That the Roman Empire isn't still around now doesn't affect whether Virgil might have been accepted as a sort of canonical text back then in an alternative history. He showed the Empire as fulfilling a divine destiny just as the Jahvist epic, one of the sources of the Pentateuch, had shown the Davidic monarchy as fulfilling a divine destiny.

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  7. Ironic that "Utopia" meaning "no place" has come to mean "good place" and Anderson used the word "Eutopia" meaning "good place".

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    1. Hi, Paul!

      Thanks for your comment. Starting with the last note, I'm glad you caught Anderson's punning use of "utopia" and "eutopia." St. Thomas More was trying to tell us his "utopia" was merely fictional satire.

      While, I agree that by late pre Christian times educated people more and more preferred monotheism over the primitive and crude polytheism of the Olympian gods, the remote and austere monotheism taught by the philosophers was too abstract and dry to appeal to non scholars. So, as more and more people became dissatisfied with the Classical gods, many turned more and more to mystery religions like Mithraism, which taught a higher view of God/gods in ways that appealed to men's hearts. Some also becamed interested in Judaism and became "God fearers," accepting Jewish monotheism and ethics, but not the ceremonial rites and laws (such as circumcision).

      Of course the OT contains anthropomorphic and metaphorical language. But I fail to see how the childish polytheism of Homer could have been convincingly reinterpreted in ways analogous to the unrelenting monotheism taught by Moses and the Prophets.

      You mentioned Davidic Messianism. As time passed, the prophets more and more interpreted that the Messiah would NOT be a crudely this worldly king and ruler. The end result being the "Suffering Servant" oracles found in the later chapters of Isaiah. And I'm aware the Jews of Our Lord's time preferred the older view of the Davidic Messiah, rather than the atoning sacrifice and resurrection which actually occurred with Christ.

      The "empire" Our Lord founded was the Catholic Church, an institution IN but not OF this world. I know you don't agree, but it was not St. Paul who founded Christianity, but Christ. And, it was Peter, not Paul, whom Christ chose as the first leader of the Church on Earth after Him. The job of this Church is to draw men to God despite the weaknesses, follies, and sins of her ministers and children.

      Sean

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  8. I agree philosophical monotheism too abstract + Mysteries were a bridge to Christianity.

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    1. Hi, Paul!

      AND the influence of Judaism and "God fearers." And Plato and Aristotle were huge influences on Christian thought and philosophers. Augustine, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, and Jacques Maritain, to list just a few.

      In this decadent age, the Catholic Church is the single largest defender of Aristotelian philosophy.

      Sean

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  9. An interesting comment by Sangharakshita, founder of the Western Buddhist order, was that Buddhism was philosophical from the beginning and developed its own diverse philosophical systems whereas Jewish/Christian/Muslim theologians philosophised by adapting Pagan Platonism and Aristotelianism.

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  10. Hi, Paul!

    That was because the Catholic Church does not reject what is true even when it did not originate inside Christianity. We believe nothing that is true can actually contradict revelation.

    As for Islam, look up the Wolfson book sometime. Best I ever read on that subject.

    Sean

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  11. I agree with finding some truth in every tradition, but more in some than in others! Thus, as one example, I agree that death-and-resurrection is a powerful myth and that history is important but not that a particular resurrection story is historical.

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    1. Hi, Paul!

      And that is we shall have to agree to disagree. I believe the Resurrection of Christ to be literally true and historical, not a mere myth. And I'm not offended by your disbelief!

      Sean

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