June 15, 2007
Where have all the eunuchs gone?
The mystery of Western thought is how a term that originally meant the manliness of a man came to mean the chastity of a woman.In an interesting review of Mathew Kuelfer's "The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity," Hagith Sivan touches on some issues which I doubt will ever be settled but which nonetheless fascinate me as an admitted traitor to both sides of the Culture War. I have long believed that certain aspects of the Culture War derive from an unresolved struggle over human sexuality during the late Roman Empire (early posts here, here, and here), and it has long baffled me that so many contemporary American moralists blame the Fall of Rome on sexual freedom, when in reality the Fall was accompanied by unprecedented restrictions on sexual freedom, and the birth of a new sort of "chaste" Christian maleness. Not surprisingly, this leads activists (always quick to point blaming fingers) to engage in post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. I think the Rome's fall was far too complex to blame on newly emerging religious views of sexuality. IMO, the growth of bureaucracy, high taxes, and most importantly, the deterioration of the military were far more important factors. Common sense suggests to me that regardless of what is going on in a culture, if there is not a strong military presence to defend it, sooner or later outside opportunists will realize that things are ripe for the plucking.
Here's reviewer Hagith Sivan and the chapter on waning masculinity, the farming out of military service to barbarians, the staffing by eunuchs, and the concomitant decline in the Roman military:
Chapter two ("Men receive a wound and submit to a defeat: masculinity, militarism, and political authority") examines the waning ancient masculine ideals in men's public lives as reflected in aversion to serving in the late Roman militia, either military or civilian. The basic assumption here is that the coming of the barbarians as military recruits and of "servile outsiders" (eunuchs?) to staff the bureaucracy must have affected individuals as well as the "very idea of what it meant to be a man among the elite classes of Roman society" (p. 37). According to MK the very essence of manliness had been the image of a soldier, as imperial panegyrics indeed reiterate ad nauseam. But he also knows that "there is little evidence for overwhelming numbers of Romans in the armies of the later empire" (p. 39). The exclusion of senators from military life had been a policy of the emperors since the third, if not the second century. For MK senatorial absence from the militia is to be linked to their own waning enthusiasm. No distinction is made between senatorial readiness, if not downright enthusiasm, to vie for administrative honors (below), and their apparent small representation in the army.While much has been made of the fact that Christians tended to avoid military service, the reviewer doesn't think this was as significant a factor as the author believes:
MK appears to believe that Christians in general opposed serving in the army. There are indeed cases that suggest such antipathy but there are also numerous instances of Christians who were more than happy to pursue promotion through the military (the families of Valentinian I and Theodosius I are merely two of many). Because "men of the later Roman land-owning classes were more likely to be the victims of military aggression rather than its perpetrators" (p. 40) such powerlessness entailed a decline of manliness intertwined with denial of military crises (p. 41), desertions from the army (p. 43) and widespread employment of barbarians as defenders of all that was Roman.Denial of military crises? Employment of barbarians?
This sounds much too familiar! Ye gods!
(I'm still allowed to have a little fun, right?)
The review touches on some of my favorite themes, including the redefinition of virtue -- from original Roman martial male virtues into the new Christian chaste female ones (with obvious implications for the replacement of from virtues to values) and reminds us of various, long-forgotten paradoxes (some of which may have implications for modern times) including the moralization of anatomy and disease and what I'm sure some would call the dissemination of "eunuch culture" via early Christianity:
Chapter three ("A purity he does not show himself: Masculinity, the later Roman household, and men's sexuality") discusses "the decline of the masculine ideals in men's private lives, in changes to family life and sexuality" (p. 6). It begins with a look at the decline of patria potestas, already a phenomenon of the Republic and the early empire, and places its final demise in late antiquity with "the deterioration of Rome's military greatness", demographic decline, new laws regarding betrothal arrangements ("reverse dowry") and a general change of women's rights of possession and of inheritance. MK uses the evidence of the Theodosian code to explore this specific erosion of paternal authority over children and over wives before turning to investigate the relationship between the "elite Roman male" and his body. Here he sees a clear connection between "sociopolitical changes and changes to sexuality". Because "sexual prowess was central to masculine identity in classical Rome", the "changes to male sexuality in late antiquity assimilated men's sexuality to women's" and "eroded the separation between men's and women's roles and identities" (p.78). Sexual abstinence becomes manliness, linked with "an unmanly fear of sex" that "pervaded later Roman culture" (p. 79) due, perhaps, to the threat of diseases. The idea that "sex was deadly" (p. 80) is interesting if perhaps overstated. MK connects the avoidance of sex with a new morality that set up husbands as (chaste) marital models to their wives, with laws that prescribed harsher penalties for adultery and for sexual offences (including visits to prostitutes), and with the scarcity of slaves or rather with decreased availability and legal restrictions regarding the use of slaves for sexual purposes.I think it should be stressed that seeing too many parallels to American culture in this would be a huge mistake, as the ancients were so different in so many ways. For starters, we don't really have eunuchs. While there might be cultural eunuchs (and while I often suspect that the growth of bureaucracy represents institutionalized eunuchs), it has to be remembered that the neutering that is going on is on a philosophical and moral level. Men remain men and women remain women. Eunuchoid bureaucrats might write the rules and might want us all to live in a safe and padded world in which we can call 911 when danger threatens, but when the chips are down, instinct rules, and people will behave as did the passengers on Flight 93. Despite the criticism of the passivity of Virginia Tech students in the face of an armed attacker, I don't think the same situation would be repeated now that people know what to expect. John Lennon's "Imagine" sounds nice in a song, but when armed invaders threaten to kill, the old "conservative is a liberal who's just been mugged" tends to kick in. (Which is why so many pacifists changed their thinking after 911.) The flying Imams are another example; the bureaucratic eunuchs would have us sit there and be terrorized not only by provocateurs like that, but by "rules" which encourage them to sue anyone who dares to oppose them.
Anyway, there's a lot more to the book, and to the review:
Thus far the first part of the book. The second and longer part ("Changing ideals") encompasses five chapters (4: "I am a soldier of Christ. Christian masculinity and militarism"; 5: "We priests have our own nobility: Christian masculinity and public authority"; 6: "My seed is hundred times more fertile. Christian masculinity, sex and marriage"; 7: "The manliness of faith: Sexual differences and gender ambiguity in Latin Christian ideology"; 8: "Eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven: Castration and Christian manliness".).This distinctly echoes Strauss's "mystery of Western thought."
I'm not a Christian theologian, nor am I an expert on eunuchs, so I can't state with confidence that I completely agree with the author's contentions that Christianity represented a sort of triumph of eunuch culture. The danger with this stuff (and frankly, I was a little hesitant to write the post), is that people get emotional when they see "their" religion being attacked. First of all, let me say that I don't believe in attacking anyone's religion. But despite my concerns about the early Christianity of the late Roman period, is it really fair for anyone to compare it to modern Christianity and claim it as "theirs"? When was the last time a modern pastor quoted Jesus on eunuchs, for example? So, please bear in mind that I think this is useful not as a religious analogy, but as a cultural analogy. We don't have early Christians taking over as they did in Rome, nor do we have a eunuch staff running the military. However, I think there may be parallels between Christians and socialists in the ecological niche sense (Christian theology is often interpreted as having a soft spot for socialism, which IMO has caused a great deal of trouble), and I think we could be experiencing tyranny at the hands of the modern equivalent of eunuchs (people who abhor masculinity and femininity and who, while they may talk the talk about sexuality, are in reality a bunch of unattractive, "spineless, ball-less wimps" if I may borrow the phrase.....)
In what must have been the ultimate paradox for the Romans, the antithesis of manhood now became manhood. And sex became a sin:
Chapter 6 deals with Christian perceptions of adultery including the ambiguity which seems to permeate the castigation of the traditional double standard that Christian moralists attempted to counter, in vain it seems. MK suggests that "Christian leaders encouraged the code of male sexual restraint not only as a sign of Christian conviction but also as a sign of manliness" (p. 170). Sex became sin, a moral legacy with which we are still battling. From this there was but one logical step to the elevation of celibacy at the expense of marriage, as Jerome did with vigor and vehemence. Spiritual marriage came to the fore with few personal examples and much greater verbosity. Concomitantly, MK observes the encouragement given to male friendship, if not to intimacy among males. Here the ancient ideal of amicitia may have been infused with a new life through the assiduous cultivation of many Christian writers. But a thinker like Jerome also provides an interesting example of the ambiguities of this new type of 'friendship' which by its very nature excluded women yet could also embrace women as intellectual equals. Combining issues of gender relations MK strives to demonstrate how leaders of the church could extend their authority beyond the immediate family by a clever appropriation of patriarchy (p. 204). The point is well taken.Again, the lessons is not religious, but cultural.
Cutting off balls has consequences.
posted by Eric on 06.15.07 at 09:53 AM
Search the Site
Classics To Go
See more archives here
Old (Blogspot) archives
A knee sock jihad might be premature at this time
People Are Not Rational
No Biorobots For Japan
The Thorium Solution
Radiation Detector From A Digital Camera
This war of attrition is driving me bananas!
Attacking Christianity is one thing, but must they butcher geometry?
Are there trashy distinctions in freedom of expression?
Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood