Like everyone else at millennium’s end, I keep thinking of how it all began in Europe. Does a day pass that one does not give at least a fleeting thought to the Emperor Otto III and to Pope Sylvester II? I should highly doubt it. After all, they are an attractive couple—a boy emperor and his old teacher, the intellectual pope. Together, at the start of our millennium, they decided to bring back the Christian empire that two centuries earlier Charlemagne had tried to re-create or—more precisely—to create among the warring tribes of Western Europe. If Charlemagne was the Jean Monnet of the 800s, Otto III is the Romano Prodi of the 900s. As you will recall, Otto was only fourteen when he became king of Germany. From boyhood, he took very seriously the idea of a united Christendom, a Holy Roman Empire. Like so many overactive, overeducated boys of that period he was a natural general, winning battles left and right in a Germany that rather resembled the China of Confucius’ era, a time known as that of “the warring duchies.”
By sixteen, King Otto was crowned Emperor of the West. An intellectual snob, he despised what he called “Saxon rusticity” and he favored what he termed Greek or Byzantine “subtlety.” He even dreamed of sailing to Byzantium to bring together all Christendom under his rule, which was, in turn, under that of God. In this sublime enterprise he was guided by his old tutor, a French scholar named Gerbert.
As a sign of solidarity—not to mention morbidity—Otto even opened up the tomb of Charlemagne and paid his great predecessor a visit. The dead emperor was seated on a throne. According to an eyewitness, only a bit of his nose had fallen off but his fingernails had grown through his gloves and so, reverently, Otto pared them and otherwise tidied him up. Can one imagine Prodi—or even Schroeder—doing as much for the corpse of Monnet?
Now we approach the fateful year 999. Otto is nineteen. He is obsessed with Italy. With Rome. With empire. In that year he sees to it that Gerbert is elected pope, taking the name Sylvester. Now Emperor and Pope move south to the decaying small town of Rome where Otto builds himself a palace on the Aventine—a bad luck hill, as Cicero could have testified.
Together, Otto and Sylvester lavished their love and their ambition upon the Romans, who hated both of them with a passion. In the year that our common millennium properly began, 1001, the Romans drove Emperor and Pope out of the city. Otto died at twenty-two, near Viterbo, of smallpox. A year later, Sylvester was dead, having first, it is said, invented the organ. Thus, the dream of a European Union ended in disaster for the two dreamers.
I will not go so far as to say that the thousand years since Otto’s death have been a total waste of time. Certainly, other dreamers have had similar centripetal dreams. But those centrifugal forces that hold us in permanent thrall invariably undo the various confederacies, leagues, empires, thousand-year reichs that the centripetalists would impose upon us from the top down.
Recently the literary critic Harold Bloom, in the somewhat quixotic course of trying to establish a Western literary canon, divided human history into phases that cyclically repeat. First, he says, there is a theocratic age, next an aristocratic age, followed by a democratic age, which degenerates into chaos out of which some new idea of divinity will emerge to unite us all in a brand-new theocratic age, and the cycle begins again. Bloom rather dreads the coming theocratic age, but since he—and I—will never see it, we can settle comfortably into the current chaos where the meaning of meaning is an endlessly cozy subject and Heisenberg’s principle is undisputed law of the land, at least from where each of us is situated.
I shall not discuss Bloom’s literary canon which, like literature itself, is rapidly responding, if not to chaos, to entropy. But as we ponder the adventures of Otto and Sylvester, we must note the cyclic nature of the way human society evolves as originally posited by Plato in the eighth book of the Republic and further developed by Giovanni Battista Vico in his Scienza Nuova.
Professor Bloom goes straight to Vico, an early-eighteenth-century Neapolitan scholar who became interested in the origins of Roman law. The deeper Vico got into the subject, the further back in time he was obliged to go; specifically, to Greece. Then he got interested in how the human race was able to create an image of itself for itself. At the beginning there appears to have been an animistic belief in the magic of places and in the personification of the elements as gods. To Vico, these legends, rooted in prehistory, were innate wisdom. Plainly, he was something of a Jungian before that cloudy Swissly fact. But then the age of the gods was challenged by the rise of individual men. Suddenly, kings and heroes are on the scene. They, in turn, give birth to oligarchies, to an aristocratic society where patricians battle for first place in the state. In time, the always exciting game of who will be king of the castle creates a tyranny that will inspire the people at large to rebel against the tyrants and establish republics that, thanks to man’s nature, tend to imperial acquisitiveness, and so, in due course, these empire-republics meet their natural terminus in, let us say, the jungles of Vietnam.
What happens next? Vico calls the next stage Chaos, to be followed by a new theocratic age. This process is, of course, pure Hinduism, which was never to stop leaking into Greek thought from Pythagoras to the neoplatonists and even now into the collective consciousness of numerous California surfers and ceramists as well as disciples of the good Allen Ginsberg. Birth, death, chaos, then rebirth and so on and on and on.
But though Vico’s mind was brilliant and intuitive, the history that he had to deal with necessarily left out science as we know it and he did not. Now we must ponder how chaos may yet organize itself through technology as the means of ultimate control over everyone even as it seems, currently, to serve China’s lively millions as a step toward liberation. Chaos—our current condition—may prove to be altogether too interesting to make order of. Will the next god be a computer? In which case, a tyrant god for those of us who dwell in computer-challenged darkness.
A characteristic of our present chaos is the dramatic migration of tribes. They are on the move from east to west, from south to north. Liberal tradition requires that borders must always be open for those in search of safety or even the pursuit of happiness. In the case of the United States, the acquisition of new citizens from all the tribes of earth has always been thought to be a very good thing. But, eventually, with so many billions of people on the move, even the great-hearted may well become edgy once we have gobbled up all the computer-proficient immigrants.
As we start the third millennium of what we in our Western section of the globe are amused to call the Christian era, we should be aware, of course, that most of the world’s tribes are, happily for them, not Christian at all. Also, most of us who are classified as Christians and live in nations where this form of monotheism was once all-powerful now live in a secular world. So chaos does have its pleasures. But then as Christian presuppositions do not mean anything to others (as Buddhists reminded the current pope when on holiday in Sri Lanka), so, too, finally, Plato and his perennially interesting worldview don’t make much sense when applied to societies such as ours. I like his conceit of the political progression of societies and a case can be made for it, as Vico did. But Plato, as political thinker, must be taken with Attic salt, which John Jay Chapman brilliantly supplies in an essay recently discovered in his archives; he died in 1933. Although he was America’s greatest essayist after Emerson, he is little known today. This is a pity, but then these are pitiful times, are they not?
Chapman on Plato:
Plato somewhere compares philosophy to a raft on which a shipwrecked sailor may perhaps reach home. Never was a simile more apt. Every man has his raft, which is generally large enough only for one. It is made up of things snatched from his cabin—a life preserver or two of psalm, proverb or fable; some planks held together by the oddest rope-ends of experience; and the whole shaky craft requires constant attention. How absurd, then, is it to think that any formal philosophy is possible—when the rag of old curtain that serves one man for a waistcoat is the next man’s prayer-mat! To try to make a raft for one’s neighbor, or try to get on to someone else’s raft, these seem to be the besetting sins of philosophy and religion.
The raft itself is an illusion. We do not either make or possess our raft. We are not able to seize it or explain it; cannot summon it at will. It comes and goes like a phantom. In other words, one man’s religion or philosophic system can never be another’s—or even his own. Plato’s mouthpiece, Socrates, was plainly no theocrat, and at the dawn of a new era of god-kings centered on Alexander, Socrates was invited to kill himself.
Of Plato, as a voice from somewhere on the far edge of a democratic age, Chapman notes, with quiet pleasure, that:
It has thus become impossible for anyone to read Plato’s dialogues or any other creation of the Greek brain with real sympathy, for those creations speak from a wonderful, cruel, remote, witty age, and represent the amusements of a wonderful, cruel, remote, witty people, who lived for amusement, and for this reason perished. Let us enjoy the playthings of this clever man but let us, so far as in us lies, forebear to cloy them with our explanations.
The dream of Otto and Sylvester, if ever made even partial reality, would hasten a new theocratic age which, thanks to modern technology, could easily become a prison for us all, and with no world elsewhere to escape to.
Great centrifugal forces are now at work in nearly every nation-state, and why resist them? For the centripetally minded—theocratic or imperial or both—the mosaic of different tribes that will occupy Europe, let us say, from homely Bantry to glittering Vladivostok, are eventually bound to come together in the interest of mundane trade. Is not that quite enough? At least in the absence of a new god.
Nevertheless, as the curtain falls on our dismal century and ungraspable millennium, one sees on every side, to the east, west, north, and south of Tiananmen Square, signs of religious revival. Everywhere Theos are rising from their musty tombs, plucking stakes from their black hearts, awful eyes aglitter in every land as they commence their war on that old night and chaos which has given such comforting shelter to shy diversity. One also recalls, in the last century, a speaker of the American House of Representatives who was so reactionary that it was said of him: If he had been consulted by God about creation, he would have voted for chaos. Considering the alternatives, for now at least, who would not?
December 16, 1999