Monday, November 20, 2023

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus:
Ammianus Marcellinus, the last Roman historian of importance, born sometime between 325 and 330 A.D., joined the army at an early age, became a general and had the great good fortune to serve with one of the greatest men of that, or of any, age. When he left the army, he settled in Rome where he wrote his history of the Roman Empire from the accession of Nerva in 96 A.D., where the history of Tacitus ends, to the death of Valens nearly three hundred years later in 378 A.D. The history contained thirty-one books, a book being what today would be called a chapter. The first thirteen books are lost. The surviving eighteen cover only the twenty-five years from 353 to 378, which suggests that Ammianus thought this period to be of particular importance. That nearly two-thirds of those chapters deal, directly or indirectly, with the Emperor Julian, suggests that, for Ammianus at least, the history of the Roman Empire cannot be understood without understanding who, and what, Julian really was.

Edward Gibbon knew Ammianus Marcellinus’ Roman History almost by heart, and, as he acknowledged, followed him as a guide in everything he wrote about the fourth century in the first volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. What Ammianus wrote about Julian is extraordinary, and he warns his readers that what they are about to read, “though not emblazoned by crafty devised falsehood, and being simply a plain statement of facts, supported by evident proofs, will have all the effect of a studied panegyric.” Almost from the moment of his birth, Julian increased “rapidly in every desirable quality,” and “soon became so conspicuous both at home and abroad, that in respect to his prudence he was looked upon as a second Titus; in his glorious deeds of war he was accounted equal to Trajan; in mercy he was the prototype of Antoninus; and in the pursuit and discovery of true wisdom he resembled Marcus Aurelius, in imitation of whom he formed all actions and character.” Perhaps even more astonishing, Julian, who had never been a solder or seen a battle, “was drawn forth from the quiet shades of the academy…into the labors of war, subdued Germany, tranquillized the districts of the frozen Rhine, routed the barbarian kings breathing nothing but bloodshed and slaughter, and forced them into submission.”

This not only tells us something of what Julian did, but by showing that, without any previous military experience, he became a great commander, we are forced to recognize the presence of something rare, and perhaps even unprecedented. From the time he became Caesar, he lived the life of an ancient Roman, when virtue still had a public meaning, when the way you lived was more important than what you had. He had studied all there was to know of Roman history and knew by heart all the early laws; he was determined to make the Romans once again the rulers, not just of the world, but of themselves, to curb their appetites for more than what they needed, and return to the condition the sumptuary laws, the laws against luxury and license, had once enforced by sometimes lethal punishment.

Julian’s mind moved faster and with a surer grasp than that of others. Dictating one thing with his voice, he wrote something else with his hand, a letter to a governor of a province or an order to a general with an army, while at the same time listening to a report from a messenger or taking part in a conversation with someone whose ideas he thought important. Three different lines of thought, three different things to do and think about, and he did it all without mistaking one for the other, did it as if it was nothing difficult or unusual. His nights were divided into three parts, one to rest, one to affairs of state, and “one to the study of literature,” by which Ammianus means the most serious study of the most serious things: “And it was marvelous with what excessive ardor he investigated and attained to the sublime knowledge of the the loftiest matters, and how, seeking as it were some food for his mind which might give it strength to climb up to the sublimest truths, he ran through every branch of philosophy in profound and subtle discussions.”

Always cautious, Julian waited until he became emperor to reveal what he really believed about the Christian religion that had come to dominate the empire. As Ammianus explains, Julian had only pretended to be a Christian. From “his earliest childhood he was inclined to the worship of the gods…yet he was influenced by many apprehensions which made him act in things relating to that subject as secretly as he could.” Ammianus is a careful writer. What he calls Julian’s “apprehensions” were his fear for his life, after his cousin, Constantius, who succeeded Constantine as emperor, murdered Julian’s father and nearly all his other relatives. “But when his fears were terminated, and he found himself at liberty to do what he pleased, he then showed his secret inclinations, and by plain and positive decrees ordered the temples to be opened, and victims to be brought to the altars for the worship of the gods.”

Christianity, with its promise of life after death, made what happened here and now, what happened to the empire, unimportant. Their eyes on heaven, Christians had no use for the belief in Roman greatness, much less the martial discipline that had made that greatness possible. Without the belief in Roman greatness, without the belief in a Rome protected by the gods, Rome and all it meant, including the honor paid to Greek philosophy, would vanish from the world and the world would descend into a darkness that might become perpetual. To restore the ancient gods of Rome, Julian had to destroy Christianity, and the best way to do that was to let Christianity destroy itself. He insisted that everyone should be free to follow the religion of their choice. “He did this the more resolutely because, as long as license increased their dissensions, he thought he should never have to fear the unanimity of the common people, having found by experience that no wild beasts are so hostile to men as Christian sects in general are to one another.”

Twenty-two months after he became emperor, Julian died in battle. He was only thirty years of age. Whether killed by a Persian spear or murdered by one of his own, Christian, soldiers, the last obstacle to Christian dominance, and the last chance for a Roman restoration, died with him. Fifty years later, the Roman empire, no longer able, or willing, to save itself, had been destroyed, but the fear of Julian and what he tried to do lived on. Twelve hundred years after his death, in the middle of the religious wars of the 16th century, Montesquieu was sufficiently worried that something he wrote in his famous work, The Spirit of the Laws, might offend Christians, remarked: “Let us momentarily lay aside the revealed truths; seek in all of nature and you will find no greater object than the Antonines, Julian even, Julian (a vote thus wrenched from me will not make me an accomplice in his apostasy); no, since him there has been no prince more worthy of governing men.”

Montesquieu wrote this, again, twelve hundred years after Julian died, and Julian died after having served as emperor for only twenty-two months. Why was Julian still remembered, and why was he still hated? Why did his name still inspire so much fear that someone of Montesquieu’s genius would feel compelled to surround his praise of Julian with an apology? Because Julian was that rarest of human beings, someone of a kind never seen before, and, after his death, never seen again: a philosopher-king who, by knowing his place in the order of the world knew how to bring order to the things of the world.

Ammianus Marcellinus was with Julian when he died, and gives a report of his last conversation, his final account of what he had done:
The reasonable moment for my surrendering this life…has now arrived, and, like an honest debtor, I exult in preparing to restore what nature reclaims.” Death is a gift of kindness, “to save me from yielding to arduous difficulties, and from forgetting or losing myself; knowing by experience that all sorrows, while they triumph over the weak, flee before those who endure them manfully.

Nor have I to repent of any actions; nor am I oppressed by the recollection of any grave crime, either when I was kept in the shade, and, as it were, in a corner, or after I arrived at the empire, which, as an honor conferred on me by the gods, I have preserved, as I believe, unstained.” Because “the aim of a just sovereign is the advantage and safety of his subjects, I have always, as you know, inclined to peace, eradicating all licentiousness - that great corrupters of things and manners - by every part of my own conduct; and I am glad to feel that in whatever instances the republic, like an imperious mother, has exposed me deliberately to danger, I have held firm, inured to brave all fortuitous disturbing events.
At the end, when everyone around him was weeping, Julian “reproved them with still undiminished authority, saying that it was a humiliating thing to mourn for an emperor who was just united to heaven and the stars.” Then, when everyone became silent, Julian “entered into an intricate discussion…on the sublime nature of the soul.”

In a summation of Julian’s greatness, Ammianus remarks, “He was older in virtue than in years, being eager to acquire all kinds of knowledge. He was the most incorruptible judge, a rigid censor of morals and manners, mild, a despiser of riches, and indeed of all mortal things. Lastly, it was a common saying of his, ‘That it was beneath a wise man, since he had a soul, to aim at acquiring praise by his body.’”

Ammianus goes on to provide a detailed summary of Julian’s virtues and achievements, but, except for a brief mention of “Misopogon,’ an attack on the licentiousness of the residents of Antioch, he does not say anything, here or anywhere else, about Julian’s writings. That Ammianus, a most careful writer, mentions, almost in passing, only one thing Julian wrote, makes us wonder whether Ammianus thought Julian’s other writings too dangerous, too subversive of the prevalent beliefs, to write about openly, and in that way calls attention, silently, as it were, to their importance.

In Persecution and the Art of Writing, published in 1941, Leo Strauss explained what writers like Julian understood. “Thoughtless men are careless readers, and only thoughtful men are careful readers. Therefore an author who wishes to address only thoughtful men has had to write in such a way that only a careful reader can detect the meaning of his book.” On the occasion of Leo Strauss’s sixty-fifth birthday, Alexandre Kojeve, that most profound student of Hegel, wrote an essay entitled, “The Emperor Julian and His Art of Writing,” to honor Leo Strauss by “trying to read between the lines of an author worthy of him for the author in question is not only an ancient philosopher but also an authentic emperor….” Julian had “referred explicitly to that ‘art of writing’ of which Leo Strauss had spoken in almost identical terms apparently without knowing what his august predecessor had said of it.”

In his discourse, “In Response to the Cynic Heracleios,” Julian had written: “For not everything ought to be said, and even of those things which it is lawful to say [to an elite], certain things, in my opinion, must be kept quiet before the many.” Convinced that the empire could be saved only by having his “subjects told pagan myths, and this in such a way that the great majority would begin again to believe them,” Julian did this in his philosophical writings “in such a way that his chosen readers would not believe them at all although they would divine the truths which he wished to teach in telling them.”

Julian’s art of writing was, for Kojeve, “most astonishing. For although he permitted himself to tell us unmistakably that he himself did not believe in any of the theological myths which were told with more or less success in his epoch, it is not as an atheistic philosopher but as a self-proclaimed ‘devout pagan’ and ‘Neo-Platonic mystic,’ that history has transmitted him to us.” Kojeve closes his essay with his own, unique, tribute to Julian’s art of writing: “Telling of Julian’s art of writing, I hope I have not betrayed his secret…by writing these pages. For these pages will say nothing of interest to those whom the Emperor wanted to exclude from the small number of comprehending readers of his philosophical writings. They will indeed say nothing at all.”

Proof that Kojeve was right, that what he wrote about Julian’s art of writing would say nothing to those from whom Julian continued to conceal his meaning, came the same year Kojeve wrote his essay, when Gore Vidal published Julian, his novel in which the Emperor Julian is portrayed as a “devout pagan,’ and a “Neo-Platonic mystic.’ The novel was a best seller, while Kojeve’s essay, like the article Leo Strauss had written in l941, was read by only a handful of careful readers. It is perhaps not entirely accidental that the only novel to take Julian’s art of writing seriously, Julian’s Laughter, was written by an author who had the great good fortune both to study under Leo Strauss and to read The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

Third Reading: A Passage To India.

Third Reading: Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Third Reading: The Letters of T.E. Lawrence.

Third Reading: All The King’s Men.

--Marshal Zeringue