Intoxicated with self-righteousness and fired with bellicosity we are rushing headlong forward without the least circumspection or doubt. This is the surest way to disaster.
People talk about “evil” as if it were no more than the label for things we do not like to varying degrees of distaste, disgust, revulsion, anger and abhorrence. Evil ends up being simply that which is opposed to us and which we oppose. But that partial view of evil is only partially correct.
I remember an itinerant guru some years back saying something to the effect that modern man thought of the devil as merely a metaphor. “No, no,” he said, “it is not that way; the devil really does exist.” I think he then laughed and added, “He even has horns and a tail!” The point to be taken was that evil is not just an “act” but truly a force -- its own presence in the world.
But if evil is a force abroad in the land, then it can affect us as well as our enemies. And by “affect” I do not mean as innocent victims but as guilty actors. In other words, evil can victimize us by making us too its beelzebubs.
The older I get the less inclined I am to laugh at medieval monks throwing holy water on a fire. The first thing medieval man would have done when confronted with a shocking conflagration that was so unexpected as to be like “an act of God or perchance the Devil” was to cross himself protectively. The second thing he would have done would have been to examine his conscience to ask what sin he had committed to bring such evil upon himself. Only then would he embark on the third step of sallying forth to wreak vengeance on the fiendish enemy who had done him wrong.
We have skipped the second step, and without examination and contrition it is an open question who is leading us whither.
Peter the Hermit rallying the Troops
The rhetoric thundering out of Washington is very much like the drumming that precedes all warful endeavours. But for obvious reasons -- including the counter rhetoric emanating from assorted caves and mosques -- it sounds most like Pope Urban II’s call for a crusade.
“Oh, race of Franks, race from across the mountains, race chosen and beloved by God as shines forth in very many of your works set apart from all nations by the situation of your country, as well as by your catholic faith ... To you our discourse is addressed and for you our exhortation is intended.
“From the confines of Jerusalem ... a horrible tale has gone forth... [A] race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; ... They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; ... Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent!
“Let the deeds of your ancestors move you and incite your minds to manly achievements; .... Let the holy sepulchre of the Lord our Saviour, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially incite you, and the holy places which are now treated with ignominy and irreverently polluted with their filthiness. Oh, most valiant soldiers and descendants of invincible ancestors, be not degenerate, but recall the valor of your progenitors.”
By all accounts when the Pope had finished his exhortation, all who were present, cried out, "It is the will of God! It is the will of God!" Deus lo vult! Deus lo vult!
“ When the venerable Roman pontiff heard that, with eyes uplifted to heaven he gave thanks to God and, with his hand commanding silence, said: “Unless the Lord God had been present in your spirits, all of you would not have uttered the same cry. ... Therefore I say to you that God, who implanted this in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let this then be your war-cry in combats, because this word is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: It is the will of God! Deus Vult!”
Before we in this most modern and technologically advanced nation make mockery of them silly medievals, we ought pause and take note of how medieval we ourselves -- and the Bush Administration in particular -- sound. ... And also how not.
For before Urban called upon the valiant Franks to visit devastation upon the Infidel, he exhorted them to correct their own sins first.
“For how can the ignorant teach others? How can the licentious make others modest? And how can the impure make others pure? If anyone hates peace, how can he make others peaceable? Or if anyone has soiled his hands with baseness, how can he cleanse the impurities of another? We read also that if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch [Matt. 15:14]. But first correct yourselves, in order that, free from blame , you may be able to correct those who are subject to you.”
The liturgical custom of public penitence before battle dates back through the Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) to King David. The story of David is well known. Flush with victory and trusting in his own lights, David connived to cover his adultery with a betraying act of murder. Out of his own household, calamity was visited upon him leading David to publicly confess his sins in what became Psalm 51 and, later, the Introit to the mass:
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. . . . Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean
When Theodosius, in pursuit of one of those nefarious and treacherous policies which were characteristic of the Late Roman Empire slaughtered 7,000 innocent Thessalonicans, he begged off saying that David had done as bad or worse. An implacable St. Anselm excommunicated him saying, “You have imitated David’s crime; now imitate his repentance!” After several months of very public humiliation at the cathedral door, the Emperor was received back into communion.
In the medieval mind, the shedding even of pagan blood, ran the risk of pollution and damnation. In typical medieval fashion, David’s repentance after the fact became the model for repentance before the deed. The example of Theodosius became the paradigm for acts of royal humiliation prior to coronation and for Charlemagne’s edict requiring three days’ fast prior to battle. The idea seems to have been that custom, necessity or vindication do not necessarily make the act clean, godly or right.
Modern cynics, like Cervantes or Monty Python can split our sides with the absurdities of medieval chivalry. Nobody in their right mind could possibly take this stuff seriously. Life is nasty and brutish. Chercher le banquier or at least la femme. As the French historian Guizot put it, “the middle ages, were, in point of fact, one of the most brutal, most ruffianly epochs of all time; one ...wherein the public peace was most incessantly troubled and wherein the greatest licentiousness in morals prevailed.” Indeed, after reaching Tyre, the valorous (and pre-confessed) race of Franks saw fit to catapult diseased animals and rotting human heads into the city in order to instigate a plague on the besieged. “Nevertheless,” Guizot is quick to add, “it cannot be denied that side by side with these gross and barbarous morals, there existed knightly morality and knightly poetry.... It is exactly this contrast which makes the great and fundamental characteristic of the middle ages.”
That is also the fundamental difference between then and now. The issue is not hypocrisy but idealism. The Middle Ages was in fact one of the most idealistic epochs in history. The duality of what is as against what ought to be was constantly before their eyes: the city of man, the City of God, the King’s two bodies, the “real” sun moving in a perfect uniform circle and the “merely apparent” sun being a little too forward or behind where it ought to be. As the English historian Plucknett put it, “Out of all the confusion and disaster of the middle ages there arose a unanimous cry for law, which should be divine in its origin, rendering justly to every man his due.”
In Plucknett’s view, American constitutionalism is an indelibly medieval construct:
"Where many a medieval thinker would ultimately identify law with the will of God, in modern times it would be identified with the will of the state. The medievalists in England had ended Stuart statecraft and the Constitution of the United States was written by men who had Magna Carta, Coke and Littleton before their eyes. Could anything be more medieval than the idea of due process...?
But the open ended concept of a due process we must strive to live up to is not far removed from Urban’s admonition that “if anyone has soiled his hands with baseness, how can he cleanse the impurities of another?” Both are rooted in an imperfect consciousness of perfection.
Medieval man was many things, but the one thing he was not was self-righteous. If anything, he was acutely aware of his fallibility and failings. When evil befell him, his first thought was to ask what he may have done or failed to do to bring about the misfortune. He may have followed up with generous dollops of self-justification, but at least he asked the question. We have not.
Caught in the toils of the way things are we can nevertheless be mindful of the way things ought to be and this mindfulness in turn makes us aware of the way we are. We are not full of right, but full of sin. Our own misdeeds bring misfortune upon us and lead us to rush headlong into disaster. It may be that in this imperfect world we must do imperfect things; but if we do not pause beforehand to examine ourselves honestly and humbly we become mere agents of Fury which like a fire is only interested in consuming what it burns.
Fulcher of Chartres, Gesta Francorum
Robert the Monk, Historia Hierosolymitana
Francois G.P. Guizot . A Popular History of France (1875) Volume I.
T. Plucknett, A Concise History of the Common Law, 5th Ed. (1956)