The Fall of the Classical Gentleman

“Pollice Verso,” or “With the thumb turned down,” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872. SOURCE:

By great good fortune today I happened to read both Book 6 of Augustine’s Confessions and Erich Auerbach’s essay, “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” from his seminal work Mimesis. Here I had the opportunity to hear one of the greatest literary critics of the 20th century discuss one of the most famous passages of one of the three most influential historians in western civilization (viz., Augustine, Luther, and Marx).

I don’t have time to type out and translate all the quotation from the Confessions, but it’s not terribly long and I’ll link to a random internet translation that does not look bad. It’s Book 6, Chapter 8 (6.8.13), and the gist of it is as follows: Augustine’s friend Alypius, a law student at Rome, is coaxed by his friends to go to the gladiatorial show at the Colosseum.

Alypius objects to such shows as immoral, being a typical educated late antique Stoic/Epicurean/Sceptic/Neoplatonist philosophical type, in short, the thoughtful gentleman of the ancient world, or near enough. So he’ll go, he says, but he won’t watch or pay attention, “and so I shall overcome both you [pl.] and them [the combats],” (ac sic et vos et illa superabo).

First the sound forces him to open his eyes, then the sight draws him in entirely.

What follows is from Auerbach’s take:

Against the increasing dominance of the mob, against irrational and immoderate lust, against the spell of magical powers, enlightened classical culture possessed the weapon of individualistic, aristocratic, moderate, and rational self-discipline.… And it is not merely a random Alypius whose pride, nay whose inmost being, is thus crushed; it is the entire rational individualistic culture of classical antiquity: Plato and Aristotle, the Stoa and Epicurus. A burning lust has swept them away, in one powerful assault: et non erat iam ille qui venerat, sed unus de turba ad quam venerat. [and he was no longer he who had come, but one of the crowd to which he had come; here Auerbach cites the passage which he had quoted at length, viz. Augustine, Confessions 6.8] The individual, the man of noble self-reliance, the man who chooses for himself, despiser of excesses, has become one of the mass. And not only that: the very powers which enabled him to remain aloof from mass suggestion longer and with greater determination than others, the very energy which has until now made it possible for him to lead a proud life of his own—these same forces he now puts at the disposal of the mass and its instinctive urges; not only has he been seduced, he turns seducer. What he has despised, he now loves. He raves not only with the others but before them all: non tantum cum illis, sed prae illis, et alios trahens. [not only with them, but before them, and drawing others.] As is only too natural in a young man of great and passionate vitality, he does not gradually concede a little, he rushes to the opposite extreme. The about-face is complete.


In other news, unfortunately, it appears the Colosseum is falling down. Sad times.

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being my gadfly.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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