Editor’s note: I am relocating the below post, already published last Sunday, to this Sunday to make a point.
Gregory of Nazianzus was a ‘saint’ that has been mentioned several times in this site, especially in Karlheinz Deschner’s historical series. But scholarly writing lacks the vitality of a literary recreation of an epoch. That is why historical novels are important as a literary genre.
The next step would be to recreate the epoch in movies and TV series (something that we would have today hadn’t the American and the British betrayed their own race in the Second World War). Gregory’s father ‘was part Jew and part Greek’ wrote Vidal, and he added about this Gregory:
He tapped the painting. A flake of paint zigzagged to the ground. “One day the whole thing will disappear and then who will know what Marathon was like, when this picture’s gone?”
Had the Third Reich been allowed to thrive, you can imagine the power that film scenes describing the Semitic takeover of our civilisation in the 4th century would have been causing in a Jew-wise, Aryan audience.
In his novel Julian, Vidal wrote:
As I stood there looking up at the tarry shields, a youth approached me. He was bearded; his clothes were dirty; he wore a student’s cloak and he looked a typical New Cynic of the sort I deplore. I have recently written at considerable length about these vagabonds. In the last few years the philosophy of Crates and Zeno has been taken over by idlers who, though they have no interest in philosophy, deliberately imitate the Cynics in such externals as not cutting their hair or beards, carrying sticks and wallets, and begging. But where the original Cynics despised wealth, sought virtue, questioned all things in order to find what was true, these imitators mock all things, including the true, using the mask of philosophy to disguise licence and irresponsibility. Nowadays, any young man who does not choose to study or to work grows a beard, insults the gods, and calls himself Cynic. No wonder philosophy has earned the contempt of so many in this unhappy age.
Without ceremony, the New Cynic pointed at the wall. “That is Aeschylus,” he said. I looked politely at the painting of a bearded soldier, no different from the others except for the famous name written above his head. The playwright is shown engaged in combat with a Persian. But though he is fighting for his life, his sombre face is turned towards us, as though to say: I know that I am immortal!
“The painter was self-conscious,” I said neutrally, fully expecting to be asked for money and ready not to give it.
The Cynic grinned at me. Apparently he chose to regard neutrality as friendship. He tapped the painting. A flake of paint zigzagged to the ground. “One day the whole thing will disappear and then who will know what Marathon was like, when this picture’s gone?” As he spoke, something stirred in my memory. I recognized the voice. Yet the face was completely strange to me. Confident now that we were friends, he turned from the painting to me. Had I just arrived in Athens? Yes. Was I a student? Yes. Was I a Cynic? No. Well, there was no cause to be so emphatic (smiling). He himself dressed as a Cynic only because he was poor. By the time this startling news had been revealed to me, we had climbed the steps to the temple of Hephaestos. Here the view of the agora is wide and elegant. In the clear noon light one could see beyond the city to the dark small windows of those houses which cluster at the foot of Hymettos.
“Beautiful,” said my companion, making even that simple word sound ambiguous. “Though beauty…”
“Is absolute,” I said firmly. Then to forestall Cynic chatter, I turned abruptly into the desolate garden of the temple. The place was overrun with weeds, while the temple itself was shabby and sad. But at least the Galileans have not turned it into a charnel house. Far better that a temple fall in ruins than be so desecrated. Better of course that it be restored.
My companion asked if I was hungry. I said no, which he took as yes (he tended not to listen to answers). He suggested we visit a tavern in the quarter just back of the temple. It was, he assured me, a place much frequented by students of the “better” sort. He was sure that I would enjoy it. Amused by his effrontery (and still intrigued by that voice which haunted me), I accompanied him through the narrow hot streets of the near by quarter of the smiths, whose shops glowed blue as they hammered out metal in a blaring racket: metal struck metal in a swarm of sparks, like comets’ tails.
The tavern was a low building with a sagging roof from which too many tiles had been removed by time and weather. I bent low to enter the main door. I was also forced to stoop inside, for the ceiling was too low for me and the beams were haphazard, even dangerous in the dim light. My companion had no difficulty standing straight. I winced at the heavy odour of rancid oil burning in pots on the stove.
Two trestle tables with benches filled the room. A dozen youths sat together close to the back door, which opened on to a dismal courtyard containing a dead olive tree which looked as though it had been sketched in silver on the whitewashed wall behind it.
My companion knew most of the other students. All were New Cynics, bearded, loud, disdainful, unread. They greeted us with cheerful obscenities. I felt uncomfortable but was determined to go through with my adventure. After all, this was what I had dreamed of. To be just one among many, even among New Cynics. The moment was unique, or so I thought. When asked who I was, they were told “Not a Cynic.” They laughed good-humouredly. But then when they heard I was new to Athens, each made an effort to get me to attend lectures with his teacher. My companion rescued me. “He is already taken. He studies with Prohaeresius.” I was surprised, for I had said nothing to my guide about Prohaeresius, and yet Prohaeresius was indeed the teacher of my choice. How did he know?
“I know all about you,” he said mysteriously. “I read minds, tell fortunes.” He was interrupted by one of the youths, who suggested that I shave my beard since otherwise I might be mistaken for a New Cynic and give them a bad name by my good behaviour. This was considered witty in that room. Others debated whether or not I should be carried off to the baths to be scrubbed, the traditional hazing for new students, and one which I had every intention of avoiding. If necessary, I would invoke lèse majesté!
But my guardian shoved the students away and sat me down at the opposite table close to the courtyard door, for which I was grateful. I am not particularly sensitive to odours, but on a blazing hot day the odour of unwashed students combined with thick smoke from old burning oil was almost too much for me. The tavern-keeper, making sure I had money (apparently my companion was deep in his debt), brought us cheese, bitter olives, old bread, sour wine. To my surprise, I was hungry. I ate quickly, without tasting. Suddenly I paused, aware that I was being stared at. I looked across the table at my companion. Yes?
“You have forgotten me, haven’t you, Julian?”
Then I identified the familiar voice. I recognized Gregory of Nazianzus. We had been together at Pergamon. I burst out laughing and shook his hand. “How did such a dedicated Christian become a New Cynic?”
“Poverty, plain poverty.” Gregory indicated the torn and dirty cloak, the unkempt beard. “And protection.” He lowered his voice, indicating the students at the other table. “Christians are outnumbered in Athens. It’s a detestable city. There is no faith, only argument and atheism.”
“Then why are you here?”
He sighed. “The best teachers are here, the best instructors in rhetoric. Also, it is good to know the enemy, to be able to fight him with his own weapons.”
I nodded and pretended agreement. I was not very brave in those days. But even though I could never be candid with Gregory, he was an amusing companion. He was as devoted to the Galilian nonsense as I was to the truth. I attributed this to his unfortunate childhood. His family are Cappadocian. They live in a small town some fifty miles south-west of Caesarea, the provincial capital. His mother was a most strong-willed woman named… I cannot recall her name but I did meet her once a few years ago, and a most formidable creature she was. Passionate and proud and perfectly intolerant of everything not Galilean.
Gregory’s father was part Jew and part Greek. As a result of his wife’s relentless admonitions, he succumbed finally to the Galilean religion. According to Gregory, when his father was splashed with water by the bishop of Nazianzus, a great nimbus shone all round the convert. The bishop was so moved that he declared, “Here is my successor!” A most generous-minded man, that bishop! Most of us prefer not to name our successor. In due course, Gregory’s father became bishop of Nazianzus. So his predecessor had the gift of prophecy, if nothing else.
All in a rush Gregory was telling me of himself. “… a terrible trip, by sea. Just before we got to Aegina, the storm struck us. I was sure the ship would sink. I was terrified. I’d never been (I still am not) baptized. So if I died like that at sea… Well, you must know yourself what I went through.” He looked at me sharply. “Are you baptized?”
I said that I had been baptized as a child. I looked as reverent as possible when I said this.
“I prayed and prayed. Finally I fell asleep, exhausted. We all did. I dreamed that something loathsome, some sort of Fury, had come to take me to hell. Meanwhile, one of the cabin boys, a boy from Nazianzus, was dreaming that he saw—now this is really a miracle—Mother walking upon the water.”
“His mother or your mother or the mother of Jesus?” I am afraid that I asked this out of mischief. I couldn’t help myself.
But Gregory took the question straight. “My mother,” he said. “The boy knew her, and there she was walking across that raging sea. Then she took the ship by its prow and drew it after her to a safe harbour. Which is exactly what happened. That very night the storm stopped. A Phoenician ship found us and towed us into the harbour of Rhodes.” He sat back in triumph. “What do you think of that?”
“Your mother is a remarkable woman,” I said accurately. Gregory agreed and talked at enthusiastic length about that stern virago. Then he told me of his adventures in Athens, of his poverty (this was a hint which I took: I gave him a good deal of money during the course of my stay), of our friend Basil who was also in Athens and was, I suspect, the reason for Gregory’s attendance at the University. Wherever Basil went, Gregory followed. At Athens they were nicknamed “the Twins”.
“I am expecting Basil now. We’re both due at Prohaeresius’s house this afternoon. We’ll take you. You know we live together here. We study together. We argue almost as a team against the local Sophists. And we usually win.”
This was true. Both he and Basil were—are—eloquent. I deplore of course the uses to which their eloquence is put. Today they are most active as Galilean apologists, and I often wonder what they think of their old companion who governs the state. Nothing good, I fear. When I became emperor I asked them both to visit me at Constantinople. Gregory agreed to come, but never did. Basil refused. Of the two, I prefer Basil. He is plain, like me. He is misguided in his beliefs but honest. I suspect Gregory of self-seeking.