#17 – Hypatia of Alexandria
June 1, 2018

#18 – Pedicabo Et Irrumabo

  • When did the decline in an interest in the classics start to emerge in the West?
  • It possibly started with Basil.
  • Basil of Caesarea
  • Basil was an influential bishop from Cappadocia, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).
  • Died in the late 4th century.
  • He was born into a wealthy family, raised a Christian by his mother, after his father was martyred before Constantine’s edict.
  • He got a classical education, first in Caesarea and then in Constantinople.
  • Then he fell under the spell of a charismatic preacher and decided to leave his legal and teaching career and devote himself to Christianity.
  • He wrote: I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.
  • He gave away his family fortune and is known for his work with the poor, setting up soup kitchens, and trying to convert theives and prostitutes.
  • In the Greek and Eastern tradition, it’s St Basil who is associated with Santa Claus, not St Nicholas.
  • He’s also known for having a huge influence on the monastic movement.
  • But what we want to talk about is his influential pamphlet ‘The Right Use of Greek Literature’ or “To Young Men, On How They Might Profit From Pagan Literature”.
  • This document was written later in his life, probably in the late 370s.
  • And it basically says this: Look kids, reading the pagan literature is pretty cool. But DON’T READ THE NAUGHTY BITS because they will corrupt your soul.
  • The naughty bits included anything that talked about sex or nudity or there being multiple gods or gods have fights and sex with other gods and humans.
  • But least of all shall we give attention to them when they narrate anything about the gods, and especially when they speak of them as being many, and these too not even in accord with one another. For in their poems brother is at feud with brother, and father with children, and the latter in turn are engaged in truceless war with their parents. But the adulteries of gods and their amours and their sexual acts in public, and especially those of Zeus, the chief and highest of all, as they themselves describe him, actions which one would blush to mention of even brute beasts–all these we shall leave to the stage-folk.
  • But apparently it was still okay to read about Yahweh impregnating Mary.
  • He says you should be like Alexander the Great when he captured the daughters and wife of Darius – even though they were beautiful, he wouldn’t look upon them, because that would be mean.
  • Basil also says you shouldn’t even think naughty sexy thoughts, because that’s bad.
  • He says good Christians should be like bees – just take the good stuff from the flower, don’t take all of the flower.
  • The pagan literature was full of all kinds of sins.
  • Open Homer’s Iliad and you might find your eyes falling on a passage about how the god Ares seduced golden Aphrodite – and how they were both then caught in flagrante delicto.
  • Open Oedipus the King and you might find a declaration that ‘the power of the gods is perishing’.
  • Even works by the most conservative authors were not without danger: open a work by the virtuous Virgil, and you might find Dido and Aeneas up to no good in a cave in a rainstorm.
  • Idolatry, blasphemy, lust, murder, vanity – every sin was there.
  • That was what made them so enjoyable to the Greeks and Romans and so sinful to the Christians.
  • Reminds me of my grandmother who used to take a black felt pen and redact all of the naughty words in books I liked to read as a kid, racey things like Jack London’s White Fang.
  • The classical writers should also be ignored, according to Basil, whenever they wrote too rapturously about the pleasures of great banquets, or when they enjoyed a wanton song.
  • Even to speak such works out loud was to pollute oneself.
  • ‘Carmen 16’ by the poet Catullus was a particular thorn.
  • This poem opens with the infamously bracing line: PEDICABO ET IRRUMABO – ‘I will bugger you and I will fuck your mouths’ – and you can get your t-shirt and coffee mug with that written on it on our redbubble site.
  • He probably didn’t like ‘Epigram 1.90’ of Martial either – this little verse attacks a woman for having affairs with other women. Or, as Martial put it:
  • You improvised, by rubbing cunts together,
  • And using that bionic clit of yours
  • To counterfeit the thrusting of a male.
  • I didn’t know Steve Austin was around in those days.
  • As we’ve seen on the Augustus show, Ovid like to talk about his own lunchtime lovemaking (‘Oh, how the shape of her breasts demanded that I caress them!’) and inspired people to make out, eventually getting himself exiled.
  • Basil says that when you come across such passages, a good Christian ‘must flee from them and stop up your ears’
  • So it’s an intereting shift in human appreciation of sex.
  • It’s like the people who complain about us talking about dicks and pussies and fucking.
  • I’m genuinely shocked that it upsets people so much.
  • Fucking – and having an interest in fucking – is not only completely natural, IT’S THE ENTIRE POINT OF OUR EXISTENCE.
  • We exist for one purpose – to fuck and pass on our genetic material.
  • And evolution has spent a billion years building that desire into us.
  • But for some reason people find discussion of it offensive or uncouth.
  • Which is pretty fucked up.
  • And we see it start with Basil.
  • Or start to ramp up with him, anyway.
  • Before Christianity, people seemed to be a lot more comfortable talking about fucking.
  • But Christianity wanted to turn it into a dirty bad thing.
  • But Basil saw this act of censorship as an act of love.
  • Just as Augustine advocated the beating of heretics with rods out of fatherly care, so Basil advocated the removal of great tracts of the classical canon as an act of ‘great care’ to ensure the soul was safely guarded.
  • Sometimes this editing process might be even more intrusive and scribes were asked to report suspicious works to the authorities so they could be censored.
  • In Alexandria, Cyril conducted house searches to hunt out works by the loathed pagan emperor Julian ‘the Apostate’.
  • The influence of Basil’s essay on Western education was profound.
  • It was read, reread and copied fervently for centuries.
  • It will have affected what was read, studied – and crucially, what was preserved – in schools in Byzantium.
  • And what was not read.
  • It was so important that this was – somewhat ironically – one of the first works translated from Greek during the Renaissance.
  • The Jesuits placed it on their international syllabus, the Ratio Studiorum, where it would have had an influence on Jesuit education worldwide.
  • It wasn’t just Basil.
  • The editing of the classical canon would continue for a millennium and more.
  • Open an 1875 edition of the Latin poet Martial and many of his more explicit poems will have been translated not into English but into Italian – evidently considered a suitable language for sexual deviancy.
  • Elsewhere poems were omitted entirely, or glossed in Greek, a language that not only looked erudite and respectable but that had the benefit of being understood by even fewer people than Latin.
  • The opening lines of Catullus’s ‘Carmen 16’ were, as the academic Walter Kendrick has pointed out, still causing trouble well into the twentieth century: they were, left out of a 1904 Cambridge University Press edition of his Collected Poems altogether.
  • Discreetly sparing the readers’ blushes (or perhaps their interest) the poem was described as merely ‘a fragment’.
  • Open the 1966 Penguin edition and you will find that the first line has, equally discreetly, been left in the original Latin.
  • ‘Pedicabo et irrumabo’ it declares, percussively but impenetrably.
  • ‘Carmen 16’ would have to wait until almost the end of the twentieth century to find a translation that rendered it correctly – though such was the richness of Latin sexual slang that five English words were needed for that single Latin verb irrumabo.
  • In this new, ever-watchful Christian era, the tone of what was being written began to change.
  • Polytheist literature had discussed and mocked anything and everything from the question of whether mankind can have free will in an atomic universe, to the over-credulity of the Christians, to the use of urine to clean one’s teeth (a process that was considered effective, but revolting).
  • After Christianity, what was seen as worth recording on the pages of parchment changed.
  • Unlike the centuries before Constantine, the centuries afterwards produce no rambunctious satires or lucidly frank love poetry.
  • The giants of fourth- and fifth-century literature are instead St Augustine, St Jerome, and St John Chrysostom.
  • All are Christian.
  • None are easily confused with Catullus.
  • This was a new literary world and a newly serious one.
  • Above all, it was a form of speech marked by an absence of humour.
  • It was a morose and a deadly serious world.
  • The joke, the humorous kick, the hilarious satires, the funny cut-them-down-to-size jibe, have vanished.’
  • And in the place of humour, came fear.
  • Christian congregations found themselves rained on by oratorical fire and brimstone.
  • For their own good, of course.
  • As Chrysostom observed with pleasure: ‘in our churches we hear countless discourses on eternal punishments, on rivers of fire, on the venomous worm, on bonds that cannot be burst, on exterior darkness’.
  • But however threatening Christian preachers might have found the easy classical talk about sex, abortions, buggery and the clitoris, there was another aspect of classical literature that presented an even more alarming prospect: philosophy.
  • The competing clamour of Greek and Roman philosophical schools provided a panoply of possible beliefs.
  • Classical philosophers had variously argued that there were countless gods; that there was one god; that there were no gods at all, or that you simply couldn’t be sure.
  • The philosopher Protagoras had neatly summed up this attitude to divine beings: ‘I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist.’
  • Even philosophers like Plato, whose writings fitted better with Christian thought – his single form of ‘the good’ could, with some contortions, be squeezed into a Christian framework – were still threatening.
  • St Paul had succinctly and influentially said that ‘the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God’.
  • This was an attitude that persisted.
  • Being an intellectual interested in something other than Christianity was frowned upon.
  • Gnosticism, a highly intellectual second-century movement (the word ‘gnostic’ comes from the Greek word for ‘knowledge’) that was later declared heretical, didn’t help.
  • Heretics were intellectual therefore intellectuals were, if not heretical, then certainly suspect.
  • Intellectual simplicity or, to put a less flattering name on it, ignorance was widely celebrated.
  • The biography of St Antony records with approval that he ‘refused to learn to read and write or to join in the silly games of the other little children’.
  • Education and silly games are here bracketed together, and both are put in opposition to holiness.
  • Instead of this, we learn, Antony ‘burned with the desire for God’.
  • That this wasn’t quite true – Antony’s letters reveal a much more careful thinker than this implies – didn’t much matter: it appealed to a powerful ideal.
  • No need to read: give up both books and bread and you will win God’s favour.
  • Even intellectuals were susceptible to this pretty picture: it was hearing about how the simple, unlettered Antony had inspired so many to turn to Christ that led Augustine to start striking himself on the head, tearing his hair and asking, ‘What is wrong with us?’
  • Ignorance was power.

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