Very often we call something modern because we do not know what is ancient.
Many so-called “modern” ideas are really old errors with new labels. We owe a greater debt to the past than is generally recognized. The waters of ancient cultures are constantly washing our shores.
One of the greatest epic poets who ever lived was Homer, whom Plato called the educator of the Greeks. Homer wrote two great works, one called the Iliad and the other the Odyssey. The Iliad ends with the story of a defeated king, and theOdyssey with the story of a sorrowful woman. The first poem ends with a beautiful tribute paid to Hector as one of the greatest of Trojan heroes. In the other poem, the Odyssey, which is concerned with Odysseus traveling about the world, there is the story of his wife, who was courted by many suitors. She said that when she finished weaving a particular garment, she would then decide on a suitor. The suitors did not know that each night Penelope undid the stitches that she put in during the daytime and thus remained faithful to Odysseus until he returned.
Great classical scholars have wondered why Homer threw into the current of literature the story of a king who was made great in defeat and a woman glorious in sadness and tragedy. Greek philosophy was concerned with answering this question. As Chesterton put it, “The role of Hector anticipates all the defeats through which our race and religion were to pass.” It was impossible for all the Greek philosophers to understand how there could be victory in defeat, how there could be nobility in suffering. There was really no answer given to this problem until the day of Calvary.
Over five hundred years before the Christian era lived the great dramatist Aeschylus, who wrote Prometheus Bound. Prometheus is pictured as bound to a rock because he had stolen fire from Heaven. An eagle comes and devours his entrails—a symbol of modern man, whose heart is being devoured, not by an eagle, but by anxiety and fear, neuroses and psychoses. For these thousands of years mankind had been yearning for some kind of deliverance; that aspiration found its answer in the speech of Hermes to Prometheus, “Look not for any end, moreover, to this curse, until some God appears to accept upon his head the pangs of thy own sins vicarious.”
In the second dialogue of Alcibiades one reads that as Alcibiades was about to go into the temple, he came to Socrates, the wise man, and said, “What shall I ask of the gods?” And Socrates said, “Wait! Wait for a wise man who is to come, who will tell us how we are to conduct ourselves before God and man.” Alcibiades said, “I am ready to do all He desires. When will He come?”
Socrates said, “I know not when, but I know that He also desires your good.”
But Greek literature was not alone in picturing man craving for another wisdom than that of earth and another relief from inner misery than that given by man alone.
The Eastern people had it too. The ancient Hindus sacrificed a lamb to Ekiam as they prayed, “When will the Savior come? When will the Redeemer appear?” Their avatars were not incarnations, but rather a descent of deities to the realm of man, such as Krishna, a deity who visited humanity, Bhagavad-Gita, who became a brother to all men, and Brahma, who was often pictured as one who would repair the faults of Kaliga, the ancient serpent.
Confucius in his Morals continued this universal craving for a Savior when he wrote, “The Holy One must come from heaven who will know all things and have power over heaven and earth.”
On dying Buddha said, “I am not the first Buddha who came upon earth, nor shall I be the last. I will die, but Buddha will live, for Buddha is Truth. The Kingdom of truth will increase for about five hundred years …. In due time another Buddha will arise, and he will reveal to you the self-same eternal truth which I have taught.” His disciple Ananda asked, “How shall we know him?” Buddha answered, “The Buddha who will come after me will be known as Maitreya, which means, ‘He whose name is Love.'”
Roman civilization struck the same chord, for all humanity is one. After answering that philosophy based on self-sufficiency was not sufficient, they craved for some inner purification; this prompted them to develop mystery religions. These cults led to many excesses, but their subjective dispositions were right, inasmuch as they saw man must have mystery as well as philosophy.
Cicero, the great orator, quotes a sibyl as saying, “A King will come who must be recognized to be saved.” Then Cicero asks, “Of what man and of what time did the sibyl speak?” In Latin, his question was, In quem hominem? “Was that question answered by another Roman?”
Ecce Homo!: “Behold the Man.”
Suetonius, in his life of Augustus, continued the traditional aspiration. “Nature has been in labor to bring forth a man who would be King of the Romans.” The Senate was disturbed by this general expectation and passed a law forbidding anyone to let live a male child that year. The order was not executed because many of the senators’ wives were with child. But it did show how much the ancient air was filled with a hushed expectancy that some great King was coming to the world.
Tacitus confirmed this in his History: “Mankind is generally persuaded that the ancient prophecies of the East will prevail, and it will not be long until Judea would bring forth one who would rule the universe.”
Virgil’s eclogue answers, “No, the golden age is here,” for in the year 31 B.C. he wrote the “Fourth Eclogue” to honor Augustus. This poem has through the centuries been looked upon as Messianic, and recent studies at Oxford favor that judgment. Iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto. “Already a new generation is being sent down from high heaven.”
Virgil lived in a world which gave no great dignity to woman. Yet in this poem, after describing the “promise of a Jove about to be” and the child as yet unborn, the last four lines speak to the child as already born. Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem. “Begin, little child, to recognize your mother with a smile.”
And now, as these expectations multiply, the greatest of them all is the Hebrew. The Hebrew civilization was destroyed by the King of Babylon in the year 586 B.C. He had taken back with him into Babylon one who was called the wisest and the most handsome of the Jews, Daniel. The King had a dream one night that neither he nor any of his aides could interpret. In the dream he saw a great and tremendous colossus. The head was of gold, the breast and arms were of silver, the belly and thighs were of brass, and the feet were part iron and part clay. And then great stones hewn from the mountains without hands came from the mountains, struck it in the feet of clay, and ground it into dust.
Since his own sages could not tell the meaning, Daniel was summoned by the King to interpret the dream: “These are the kingdoms that will divide the world until the coming of the expected One of the world.” “The empire of gold,” he said, “is you. You will fall and be devoured by the empire of silver; the empire of silver will, in its turn, be conquered by the empire of brass; and the empire of brass will go down before the empire of iron and clay.”
In the year 538 B.C., the Medes and Persians came to this great city of Babylon, which was sixteen miles square, with sixteen gates of solid bronze giving entrance to it. Cyrus turned aside the waters of the Euphrates, which ran through the center of the city, and went into it under the walls in the dry bed of the river. That night Baltazaar was slain, and the empire of gold was taken over by the empire of silver.
Then there arises a new power—the empire of brass. Trained in their games, knowing where to hazard and when to abandon, the Greeks now arose to swallow up the Persians, as the Persians had swallowed the Chaldeans. Greece could not bear the thought of being subdued by Asia. Every Greek prepared to defend his liberty, and the only dispute among them was who should do more for the public.
Then arose the great Alexander of the Greeks. Brave as Darius III was, he could not stop either the genius or the arms of the great Greek, who carried his conquests into every land of the Persians, and at thirty-three years of age was destined to show the vanity of all earthly glory. Sighing for new worlds to conquer, he little suspected that, at that age, the one world left to conquer and the only one worth conquering, was the next. He died without leisure to settle his affairs and left his ambition to a simpleton brother. It was the first great war between Europe and Asia.
The beasts of paganism were devouring one another. The last great empire which God prepared now was ready to appear on the stage of the world’s history. It was the mightiest of all! Rome, the empire of iron, looked to Greece and Carthage as its prey. Rome’s screaming eagles went to war. Dragging her ponderous battering rams like chains, shaking the earth like marching mountains, her unbridled horses darting like hawks, the Romans moved on, while there came from ten thousand times ten thousand throats the cry of hate: Delenda est Carthago! (Carthage must be destroyed!) Rome under Scipio went to battle, and Carthage fell finally in 146 B.C. as nothing has fallen since Satan fell from Heaven.
Rome became supreme. With her arms of iron, she crushed the agonizing kingdoms of the world, one after another. The world was at peace. There was nothing more to conquer. The Temple of Janus, which was kept open to pray for success in war and which was closed only twice in seven hundred years, was now closed again. Perhaps its doors were clogged with the dead bodies of its citizens. In any case, the world was at peace, and it was prophesied the King of Men would be born when the world no longer bore arms or went to battle.
Caesar Augustus, now that the world was at peace, resolved to take a census of the greatest empire the world had ever known. In the great hall of his palace by the Tiber, he was casting up the accounts of the nations of the earth. Before him stretched on a frame was a chart labeled laconically: Orbis terrarum—Imperium Romanum. “The circle of the earth—the Roman Empire.” A careful and thrifty man was Augustus, the Caesar of the earth. No one should escape the census, for Rome was the mistress of all. From the western ocean to the Persian plains, from the frozen north to the edge of the southern desert, the list went out from his hand to every sweating governor and satrap and tetrarch and king. The world is to be brought to unity. The human race had only one capital: Rome; one master: Caesar; one language: Latin.
Morally the world was one in its sin and corruption; materially it was one, for it had reached the highest peak of organization and unity. There are no longer Medes or Persians, no longer Scythians or barbarians, no longer Greeks or Babylonians. There are only Romans; there are only men. Nations were not awaiting a king, but rather mankind was awaiting a king.
Little did the bookkeeper of the Tiber know that he was aiding in the fulfillment of the Jewish prophet Micheas that the “Expected of the Nations” would be born in Bethlehem. The census notice was finally posted in the little village of Nazareth that a carpenter might read it—he who belonged to the defunct royalty of the family of David, whose city was Bethlehem. He and his espoused wife, Mary, journeyed to Bethlehem.
There rings out over the softness of the evening breeze a cry, a gentle cry, the cry of a newborn baby. The sea could not hear the cry, for the sea was filled with its own voice. The great ones of the earth could not hear the cry, for they could not understand how God could be greater than a man.
Wise men came from the East, perhaps Persia. They saw the Babe—a Babe whose tiny hands were not quite long enough to touch the huge heads of the cattle, and yet hands that were steering the reins that keep the sun, moon, and stars in their orbits. Shepherds came, and they saw baby lips that did not speak, and yet lips that might have articulated the secret of every living man that hour.
The Babe could not walk, because those baby feet could not bear the weight of Divine Omnipotence. Eternity is in time; Omnipotence in bonds; God in the form of man. The yearnings of Buddha, of Confucius, of Aeschylus, of Virgil, of Socrates, of Plato—all were now realized in a Child in the stable.
Incipe, parve puer. “Begin, little Child, to recognize Thy mother with a smile.”
Originally published in The Classical Teacher, Spring 2012 edition.