by Leanne Ogasawara
I wrote about Piero della Francesca's the Flagellation of Christ in my post about my botched Piero Pilgrimage of 2015. A woman of many mangled pilgrimages, this one continues to haunt me. Perhaps Piero's most famous picture, there are numerous explanations for what is being depicted. The conventional understanding of the left side is understood to be of Christ being flogged by the Romans, while Pilate –looking like the Ottoman Sultan– sits watching off to the side. Hence, the picture's title. But who are those three people on the right and why are they so oblivious to the cruelty going on?
British art historian John Pope-Hennessy, whose essay on the Piero Pilgrimage is in my top three essays of all time, doesn't think it is Christ at all being flogged–but rather, Saint Jerome.
Do you recall Saint Jerome's Dream?
To attain the kingdom of heaven, Jerome had left everything and headed off toward Jerusalem to wage holy war. Prepared to meet any enemy and to undergo any hardship, the one thing he found it surprisingly hard to give up was his library of beloved books. And so he made a pact with himself to undergo all the necessary hardships and to fast by day so as to reward himself at night in reading Cicero. It was just his little secret and everything was going well enough–until he had that dream. Hauled before the "Judgement seat of the Judge," he was asked who and what he was (because people back then could be asked to whom they belong).
“I am a Christian,” he said meekly (for he really had been fasting and was all skin and bones).
But He who presided said: “Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For ‘where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.’”
His lord then ordered him scourged.
Waking up from this troubling dream, Jerome decided in his heart to devote himself to the study of the Book of God, not to the books of men– for, as some translations have it, he had to prove that he was not a "Ciceronian" but a Christian.
Not surprisingly, Saint Jerome became very adept at translating the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages. Making the first Latin translation of the Bible, he is the patron saint of translators.
A translator myself, last autumn, I wrote a post here called Romance of the Red Dictionaries. About my experiences thinking and dreaming in Japanese, the post explored the surprise I felt over time in seeing myself transformed by the language. I was in many ways a "different person" in Japanese. I really think I was nicer at least. I also laughed more. My experiences in Japan are something I would never trade for anything. And lately I've been toying with the idea of taking up a new language. I would never have the energy to master another difficult language again as we all know that language learning is definitely an activity for the young, with their plastic minds and ability to learn by heart. But how about a "dead language," one where we would only be talking about reading ability? So, I have been playing around with the idea of learning Latin in my old age. How hard could that be, right? (That was a joke!)
But speaking of getting outside one's comfort zone, I am auditing another class at Caltech. This time in history. Taught by intellectual superhero Nicolás Wey Gόmez, we are reading all kinds of wonderful texts– from Aristotle to al-Kindi. It is a strange –and somehow poignant– experience to find oneself sitting with a group of young undergraduates reading the classics again. Can you imagine going back to university again and sitting with the kids? Despite my awkwardness, I am enjoying it immensely! A highlight so far has been Scipio's Dream (or Somnium Scipionis).
Many people say Cicero's prose is the height of Latin beauty. Reading the text, I cannot help but wish I could access its mysteries in the original Latin. In translation, you just can't help but feel somehow locked out.
Scipio's Dream is an extraordinary work written by Cicero around 50 BC. The scene takes place just weeks prior to the last battle of the Third Punic War, which effectively wiped Carthage off the face of the earth. In the story, Scipio the Younger arrives at the court of the King of Numidia (Numidia was the turncoat North African kingdom that had changed sides from Carthage to Rome which hastened Carthage's eventual final destruction). There, Scipio has a dream in which he is visited by his adopted grandfather, Scipio Africanus the Elder, who was the great Roman war hero of the Second Punic War. Scipio Africanus the Elder, you will recall, was the man who marched on Carthage to capture Hannibal, the bête noire of the Romans. Scipio the Elder, like Hannibal, was larger than life. And for this feat, Scipio Africanus the Elder secured his place in history as one of the world's greatest generals, "greater than Napoleon" as one book title has it.
So, in the dream, Scipio the Elder appears to his adopted grandson and together they float up to space in a wondrous astral projection dream journey!
It's kind of amazing that in a time when human beings had not yet crossed the oceans, Cicero is able to imagine what the earth is like when viewed from the upper stratosphere. And from their vantage point up above, the two Scipios see the nine spheres that make up the universe. Highest above is the celestial sphere of the fixed stars. From there, they see the other crystalline spheres of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury, the moon and finally the earth (immovable in the center). Scipio is filled with awe at the vision of this celestial harmony and amazed by the sweet music of the spheres.
Then, Scipio the Elder tells his grandson his future. And this being Cicero, it boils down to heaven having a special place reserved for Roman soldiers who live up to their duty. But as great as Rome may be, seeing how the earth appears as if it is just a speck in the expanse of the celestial heavens above, Scipio the Younger notices that smaller still is Rome. Indeed, Scipio can hardly believe how insignificant the empire appears from space. All this trouble and for what?
A great orb when seen from above (and don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise since human beings have know the earth was a sphere since ancient times), Scipio then describes the earth as divided into five zones or belts. With two polar regions that are inhospitable to human life being frigid cold in extremis, so too is the central tropical belt described as being burning red hot and inhospitable to human life. There remained two temperate zones. The first was the inhabited world of the three continents (Europe, Asia and Africa) as the ancients knew it; while the other was a terra incognita zone in the southern antipodes. According to Cicero, the known world and the unknown world were separated by a great distance (or of unsurpassable waters) so that in the end, being thus cut off from one another, Rome's domain was limited and circumscribed.
Stoic Balance in all things, after all.
We like to reduce our histories to reductionistic and easy to tell stories. But history is so much richer than the tales we tell about what happened back then. Even if they hadn't worked out all the details, the people of the late antiquity and the early middle ages were certainly not anti-science in the way the modern meme has it. No, they were grappling with many theories and trying to come reconcile them all. As Professor Nicolás Wey Gόmez said about Plotinus, for example, faced with the resurfacing of Aristotle the people of the time sought hard to "reconcile" the various theories. For Plato was smart and Aristotle was smart and surely they both must be right? This reminds me a lot of CS Lewis' wonderful essay (also in my top three list) on Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages, in which he described the medieval man not as a dreamer or spiritual adventurer but more like an obsessive organizer and codifier. They were, he suggested, a literate people who had lost all their books and like some kind of shipwreck castaways who wash ashore with just a few of their greatest books, they sought to rebuild their civilization. Georgetown University philosopher Daniel N. Robinson once remarked that if you want to really understand what the Renaissance was in terms of science and philosophy, you shouldn't look at 15th century Florence at all– but rather you should instead turn your eyes to the Hellenistic Islamic world of the 11th century and the medieval universities of Europe (Bologna, Paris and Oxford) of the 12th century.
Thinking of this image of a civilization in ruins trying to rebuild with what books they had left is an image taken up the recent book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, by Roy Scranton. I've written about this book before here in these pages. And I highly recommend this one to you. Ostensibly about climate change, the short book is really a brilliant meditation on death. Convinced there is no rolling back the damage, the book is about ways of facing the end of civilization. And Scranton wants us to learn from Rome. We don't want to have to rebuild like those shipwreck survivors of the early middle ages trying to frantically recreate all the knowledge that was lost. And so much has already been lost. We must, therefore, make a concerted effort, he says, to conserve our ecological and our civilizational heritage. We need to look at the big picture.
And what about the big view and the view from above?
There is another famous scene about Scipio the Younger that I have long loved. Described by the Greek historian Polybius, who had traveled along with the famous emperor to Carthage to witness the last battle of the Third Punic War and the utter destruction of Carthage. He wrote in his history that Scipio, after a long siege, swept in to inflict defeat on the Carthaginians and razed the city to the ground. Anyone not killed was sold into slavery and the city buildings and its walls were all destroyed. The final moments of the battle have been told and retold. The Carthaginian general, hoping to at least spare any final suffering after he realized that all was lost, had left the citadel to surrender, to the disgust of his wife, who yelling insults at his cowardice leapt with her children into the fires. The entire city was, by that time on fire. And then as the Greek historian Polybius stood by his side, Scipio– with tears streaming down his cheeks, was said to have cried out a sentence from Homer:
A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,
And Priam and his people shall be slain.
The Greek historian was deeply moved by this; for –as all historians know– the victors always re-write history. And, not just that. For there is such a thing as Homeric destiny, and hence, just as Troy fell, and now Carthage falls, so too shall one day Rome be destroyed as well. Indeed, if we aren't careful perhaps generations from now a curious little girl will dream of reading Moby Dick, translated into Japanese, in that original and sadly dead language called English.
The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies, by Nicolás Wey Gómez