Posted by: ken98 | January 19, 2010

Marxist Education, Suicidal Christian Thugs, and More Virgins

Day 130 – Ken here (T)(1-19-2010)
(DEF v.2, ch.21, pp.820-830)

We finish today chapter 21 on Christian Heresy (yeah!) and start tomorrow on a 150 page love letter from Edward Gibbons to the emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, known also as Julian the Apostate. Gibbon loves Julian (called the Apostate because he re-instituted paganism as the state religion), as have many others (example: Gore Vidal’s Julian). Its been a long, long road through the long, long chapters of 20 and 21 (100 pages – which is 2 weeks my-reading-time, an eternity in Ken-Years).

Today we end up looking at 2 Catholic (Orthodox) Christian sects (which were classified as heretical): the extreme Circumcellions (which seem more socialist/nationalist than Christian), and the Novatians (early Donatist – from the persecutions of Decius (250) – more Catholic than the Catholics). There is a short defense of Constantine and the continued toleration of paganism (which Gibbon actually argues pretty poorly – he seems conflicted the whole way through this chapter – as if he’s half Deist, half conservative Church of England).

As I’m writing this the day before (Martin Luther King’s Day in the U.S.) I was thinking of education, class struggles and the politics of the 60’s and 70’s AND Gibbon and 4th century Christianity’s idea of Heresy – so naturally I thought of Paolo Freire.

And away we go…

The Story
Sects – Circumcellions

  • Gibbon basically portrays them as suicidal Christian thugs – extreme fundamentalist guys going around with large clubs, beating people up in the hope that they would provoke the beaten into killing them (thus becoming Christian martyrs) – the logic is there, but to 21st century eyes (and 18th century eyes) a few key arguments are missing somewhere, leading us to a different conclusion – note the beaters (Circumcellions) were probably beating up non-Christians – in their eyes (Catholics and Pagans)
  • Circumcellions – Originally a socialist, activist guerrilla group, of poor, native N.Africans, undermining Roman rule in N.Africa and working towards social/political equaility
  • became inflamed with the Donatist (Christian) controversy (persons who evaded martyrdom by recanting could NEVER be Christians again – so more Catholic than the Catholics)
  • Eventually ended up running parts of N.Africa, also roaming the countryside seeking death (martyrdom) by provoking people to kill them (magistrates, citizens, etc) seeking martyrdom as the highest good. Could not carry blades or cutting instruments,so they attacked their hoped-for-killers with blunt clubs called Israealites, shouting Praises to God. These extreme Donatists died out in the 4th century – literally.

  • Novatians – (followers of the priest Novatus) – Originally a section of the Catholic church that believed once you recanted (denied) your faith during a persecution, you could never be Christian again (unlike the Catholic Church which accepted people back again) – from the persecutions of Decius in the 250’s.
  • Spread throughout the empire, as a separate church, indistinguishable for the most part from the Catholic church. The Donatists arose in pretty much the same way for the same reasons in the persecutions of the 290’s, 300’s under Diocletian – early (and modern) Christians seem to be pretty bad at forgiving – considering the fact they are a forgiven people
  • Extreme Catholics of Asia Minor (Paphlagonia) armed the countryside and raised rebellion in Orthodoxy’s name for years – killed and pillaged whole sectors of the countryside – the empire (Arian at this time) kills and pillages in return
  • Both of these (Circumcellions, Novatians) seem to me to represent a class/socio-political struggle masquerading under a religious ideology – like the class wars in Central America (Nicaragua). Gibbon seems utterly oblivious to the possibility – but then he WAS in the 18th century, an avid citizen of the British Empire (although living in Switzerland) and a fervent member of the upper class – not interested in class as a topic unless to differentiate the reasonable populace from the merely enthusiastic, great-unwashed mob.
    Toleration of Paganism

  • Gibbon notes Constantine, Constantius were tolerant of paganism – but it is a weak argument, and fails even in the examples he gives
  • I almost think he did it on purpose – to show that these 2 most-Christian emperors were NOT rational men of the Enlightenment, but superstitious savage early Christians (to exaggerate slightly
  • Gibbon points out that a law of Constantine outlawing all pagan temples was never carried out completely
  • However, oracles, sacrifices, and divination were outlawed (soon to be Satanic) – it is a mark of the extreme cultural change that is taking place now in the 4th century (300’s) that in only a couple of hundred years, divination etc will be seen as communication with the Demonic, where once only the most affluent, famous, and powerful men of the empire were able to become Supreme Pontifex (High Priests) of Rome and interpret omens and signs in the ancient science of divination – we are entering the Middle Ages,and later Modern Europe, and it all starts in the 300’s
    The Breasts of Virgins
    Gibbon inexplicably throws virgins in again into the narrative mix with a short description of Arian (supported by imperial (Constantius) power) persecution of groups later to be known as Orthodox or Catholic.

    Red-Hot Eggshells and Heavy Boards?

    they were compelled to relinquish the possession of the churches, and were strictly prohibited from holding their assemblies within the walls of the city. The execution of this unjust law in the provinces of Thrace and Asia Minor was committed to the zeal of Macedonius; the civil and military powers were directed to obey his commands; and the cruelties exercised by this Semi-Arian tyrant in the support of the Homoiousion exceeded the commission and disgraced the reign of Constantius. The sacraments of the church were administered to the reluctant victims, who denied the vocation and abhorred the principles of Macedonius. The rites of baptism were conferred on women and children who, for that purpose, had been torn from the arms of their friends and parents; the mouths of the communicants were held open by a wooden engine while the consecrated bread was forced down their throat; the breasts of tender virgins were either burnt with red-hot eggshells, or inhumanly compressed between sharp and heavy boards

    (DEF, v.2, ch.21, p.820)

    Strangely Anti-Semitic Remarks – or more items from the Where Did That Come From Department
    Briefly – Gibbon slips in a remark on the Circumcellions and their penchant for religious suicide – which strikes me as strangely out-of-place and anti-semitic to boot – but Gibbon definitely has an 18th century British aversion to all things Jewish, as we’ve already seen

    In the actions of these desperate enthusiasts, who were admired by one party as the martyrs of God, and abhorred by the other as the victims of Satan, an impartial philosopher may discover the influence and the last abuse of that inflexible spirit which was originally derived from the character and principals of the Jewish nation

    (DEF v.2, ch.21, p.823)


    Paolo Freire - writer under Brazils military dictatorship on reforming education and using the public classroom as a method for raising social/political consciousness - also most famous for noting that The Oppressed become the Oppressors When Given Power

    Paolo Freire - writer under Brazil's military dictatorship in the 60's and 70's. Freire wrote on reforming education and using the public classroom as a method for raising social/political consciousness - also most famous for noting that The oppressed imitate the oppressors when given power without education

    Paulo Freire and the Oppressors Becoming the Oppressed

    Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.

    Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (here)

    Book cover of Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire - Freire is famous for his egalitarian approach to the teacher student relationship and his attempt to bring socialist activist consciousness to the classroom - obviously a lightning rod for conservative criticism, and sometimes of doubtful help to educators in graduate programs

    Book cover of Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire - Freire is famous for his egalitarian approach to the teacher student relationship and his attempt to bring socialist activist consciousness to the classroom - obviously a lightning rod for conservative criticism, and sometimes of doubtful help to educators in graduate programs

    Gibbon notes over and over in his overviews of Christianity, Heresy (chapters 15, 16, 20, 21) – that although the Christians were persecuted, they were far more vicious and ferocious towards unbelievers or different-believers once Christians gained political power in the new Christian empire (320’s and on). The bloodbaths of the Donatists and the Arian controversies (on both sides) just confirm over and over again Friere’s basic tenet: use education to make sure that when (not if) the oppressed become a/the ruling class, the oppressed do not just imitate the oppressors.

    It is a valid lesson, and a good program, but probably not one that is possible to accomplish – except in the ideal, abstract, Karl Marx-ist world of altriustic, individual-less worker classes. Although, if anyone had a chance at getting it right, you’d think it would have been the first Christian empire in the world (the Roman Empire) whose conscience became (in the course of a couple of decades) the highest spiritual advisors of the land (Bishops).

    But, no. As the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc proved much later on, political Christianity is a nightmare – the more so because the simple precepts of love and altruism are the yardsticks political Christianity is measured against. Impossible goals (love and altriusm) in the art-of-the-possible world of politics – especially the Roman empire. Perhaps a special kind of empire-wide Freire-ian education would have helped the Christian empire apply Christian principles to Roman political problems. But Freire was 17 centuries in the future.

    Much ink has been spilled in the last 30 years over Paulo Freire – whose ideas about bringing social consciousness into the classroom, and equalizing the teacher-student, student-teacher relationship has sparked fire-storms of controversy. His seminal work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” has become (apparently) required reading for graduate level Education coursework (full text here), and continues to be attacked to this day (example – Sol Stern 2009 here – who has his own anti-Obama axe to grind and trots out Freire as a straw man to knock down – but that’s another story).

    It is amazing to me how little history (or the tools of history) is/are taken into account in other fields. It’s obvious to me that a writer/educator, teaching under a military dictatorship (which was formerly a democracy), in a land of extreme differences between the wealthy and the poor, where social institutions like schools were used to prop up existing inequalities, and in a Latino culture where deference to authority and hierarchy are an ingrained reflex that a program of de-stabilizing the military’s stranglehold on education might be a good thing (thus Freire’s ideas). It is also equally obvious to me that only someone with little or no understanding of Brazil’s history, socio-cultural forces at play, and Freire’s goals for his nation would try and apply that program to another country (read: the U.S.) without a great deal of re-thinking and alteration to radically different social conditions (only a naive fool would equate inner city U.S. schools with favela schools under a dictatorship) (not to put too fine a point on it).



    1. As it happens, I am doing some reading on heresies
      myself. I am leading a discussion in the Library on
      Sundays. Right now I am on Pelagius, some on Arius–undoubtedly the most important heretic of them all–and the Cathars, whose antecedents can probably be traced to Persia and Mani.
      And of course, I’ve read Gibbon, all the way through,
      but a long time ago.
      Is Julian really his hero? As I remember, he makes a bit of fun of him.
      It is hard to keep on heresy straight from another.
      The interesting question is, how did Augustine and his crowd manage to make themselves orthodox?
      Really puzzling when you think of their absurd doctrines–original sin and predestination particularly, not only absurd to us but to many in the 5th cent. as well

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