But Like Beasts (Incarnational Semiotics 5)

The Knights who now enter to kill Thomas behave as personifications of this lack of significance. As the Priest notes in his warning to Thomas,

these are not men, these come not as men come, but

Like maddened beasts. They come not like men, who

Respect the sanctuary, who kneel to the Body of Christ,

But like beasts.[i]

They have lost their humanity because they have lost their ability to see signification; they are no longer, in the terminology of Roland Barthes, man the “meaning-maker, homo significans.”[ii] Through the renunciation of the symbolic, the Knights have renounced their own humanity, their identity as the symboling creature, and so have become directly identified with animals. “Men who have emptied themselves—for ‘a soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created beings”—are entitled to hope for this metamorphosis of symbols,” writes Hugh Kenner, citing the quotation from St. John of the Cross used by Eliot in his Sweeney Agonistes.[iii] “For the empty men who parody those saints it is only a hope, and a forlorn one.” Eliot uses their own drunken words against them to reinforce the point:

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you marked with the mark of the beast?

Come down Daniel to the lions’ den,

Come down Daniel and join in the feast.[iv]

All of their imagery is the imagery of animals. In a blasphemous mockery of the Eucharist, they sing about being “washed in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14), as they will be spattered with the blood of Thomas when they kill them. “The mark of the beast,” another image from the Revelation (13:16), functions as an inversion of “the Blood of the Lamb” which marks the faithful. Finally, they identify themselves with the lions to whom Darius ordered the biblical prophet Daniel to be fed (Daniel 6:16).

Thomas, however, once again restores the correct signification of the symbols, insisting, “It is the just man who / Like a bold lion, should be without fear.”[v] And once again this resignification is accomplished through the Eucharist, with which he identifies his own blood which the Knights are about to spill:

This is the sign of the Church always,

The sign of blood. Blood for blood.

His blood given to buy my life,

My blood given to pay for His death,

My death for His death.[vi]

Thomas drives home this identification of his death with the sacrifice of Christ and the Eucharist, and therefore the identification of the entire drama with the liturgy, by reciting a prayer reminiscent of those said during the lavabo, the ritual washing of the priest’s hands in the Mass just before the consecration of the Eucharist. Thomas prays, “Now to Almighty God, to the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, to the blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to the blessed martyr Denys, and to all the Saints, I commend my cause and that of the Church.”[vii] Only the inclusion of St. Denys, an early Christian bishop of Paris who was martyred in the third century, sets Thomas’s prayer apart from its model in the Mass.

The Women of Canterbury continue this theme of washing in their chorus of reaction to the Knights’ slaying of Thomas. In a confused cacophony of approval and horror they implore the Knights to wash away the symbolism that the world has taken on: “Clear the air! clean the sky! wash the wind! take the stone from the stone, take the skin from the arm, take the muscle from the bone, and wash them. Wash the stone, wash the bone, wash the brain, wash the soul, wash them wash them!”[viii] This washing away of symbolism and significance, however, is not accomplished by the death of Becket, but by the speeches of the Knights following their murderous act.

Immediately upon killing Thomas, with his blood still on their hands, the Knights turn to the audience, once again, as did Thomas in his Christmas sermon, drawing the observer into the action. Now, however, the audience is being pulled in the opposite direction. Whereas Thomas’s sermon is intended to draw them into the liturgical element of the drama, to bring about participation in the ritual renewal of the Incarnational and the Eucharistic, the Knights’ speeches are an attempt to persuade the audience away from the liturgical, and therefore away from significance, to reduce the drama to mere entertainment and spectacle. “The Archbishop had to be put out of the way,” the Second Knight argues.[ix] “No one regrets the necessity of violence more than we do,” adds the Third Knight.[x] “Unhappily, there are times when violence is the only way in which social justice can be secured.” The Knights’ words and arguments are Eliot’s parody of modern political debate, a contrast to the liturgical poetry of Thomas.[xi] Being addressed to the audience, the Knights’ speeches are not merely technical devices internal to the poetry, however. Murder in the Cathedral is, after all, a ritual drama. Drama and ritual are interactive in their essence.[xii] In one of the earliest descriptions of the Mass, written near the middle of the second century, St. Justin Martyr elucidates among the essentials of Christian liturgy that “all the people have expressed their assent” to the Eucharistic prayers of the priest.[xiii] The Mass, then, is not merely observed, but participated in. The Knights’ speeches are one last attempt to draw away the participation of the audience, to render the Eucharist impossible by removing the assent of the people. The Knights’ speeches are also a reminder and a challenge, like Thomas’s earlier words to the Chorus, that the audience must shortly venture back out into the waste land, that what they have experienced in the ritual and in the drama will eventually be only a faint memory.

[i] Ibid.

[ii] Allan Johnston, “Identity, Inclusion, Ethics, Values: Potentials of the “Literacy Event”” Journal of the Philosophical Study of Education 1 (2011): 86.

[iii] Hugh Kenner, “Hugh Kenner on the Hollow Men as Lost Souls,” in T. S. Eliot, ed. Harold Bloom (Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999), 67.

[iv] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 212.

[v] Ibid., 213.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., 214.

[ix] Ibid., 215.

[x] Ibid., 217.

[xi] Carol H. mith, T.S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice, From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 102.

[xii] Umberto Eco, “Semiotics of Theatrical Performance,” The Drama Review: TDR 21, no. 1 (March 1977): 117.

[xiii] Justin Martyr, The First Apology, in The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, ch. LXV.

What Then Did He Mean? (Incarnational Semiotics 4)

It is the presence of Thomas which has brought meaning and significance to what has been there all along. The earth and the sky are no longer the flat, insignificant facts they once were; they have become symbols which point to a higher truth in which all symbols are unified and from which each derives its significance. “Now is the meaning plain,” proclaims Thomas.[i]

Much has been made of Eliot’s inspiration by Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and James G. Frazer’s Golden Bough because of his citation of them in the notorious notes appended to the end of The Waste Land, in which Eliot assures his readers that “anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognise in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.”[ii] There can be little doubt that these and similar influences remained important to Eliot throughout his life. Eliot’s assertion in his lectures on The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism delivered at Harvard University in 1932–1933 that “poetry begins . . . with a savage beating a drum in a jungle,” for example, echoes James G. Frazier’s summative statement on his own work that “when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him” and indeed many of our instincts and drives are still his.[iii] The later influence of historian and cultural theorist Christopher Dawson, however, has been less often acknowledged and discussed. Dawson, who wrote occasionally for Eliot’s periodical The Criterion, is cited several times by Eliot in the latter’s Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and highlighted by Eliot in the preface to Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) as one of three authors to whom he owed “a particular debt” for his own ideas.[iv]

It is Dawson’s influence upon Eliot, however, which makes it possible to say that Murder in the Cathedral is a re-presentation of the central myth of Christian culture.[v] Added to Eliot’s earlier studies of the myth of the dying and rising vegetative god were Dawson’s insights concerning “the existence of this specifically religious need in primitive man—in other words, the naturalness of the religious attitude.”[vi] According to Dawson, “primitive agriculture was in fact a kind of liturgy” which arose out of the incipient religious orientation of early man.[vii] “It is even possible,” writes Dawson, “that agriculture and the domestication of animals” which enabled the emergence of culture among early humans “were exclusively religious in their beginnings, and had their origin in the ritual observation and imitation of the processes of nature which is so characteristic of this type of religion.”[viii] Dawson held that his theory of religion as the primary motivating factor in culture applied to the modern West as well, positing that “the reconstitution of Western civilization” following the collapse of the Roman Empire “was due to the coming of Christianity” and its effects on society, beginning with the family.[ix] Eliot’s notion that the culture of a people is “the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people” is essentially an extension of Dawson’s theories.[x] Dawson’s theories also enabled Eliot to identify the “Culture Hero” with the “Vegetation God,” as he does with Becket in Murder in the Cathedral, rather than to separate them as Weston had.[xi] It is in Eliot’s Dawson-inspired insistence on the link between religion and culture that Eliot’s semiotics are founded.[xii] And it is here that any analysis of the semiotic aspects of Eliot’s poetry must begin.[xiii]

Meditating on a number of symbols, Eliot writes in the Dry Salvages:

To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,

To report the behaviour of the sea monster,

Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,

Observe disease in signatures, evoke

Biography from the wrinkles of the palm

And tragedy from fingers; release omens

By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable

With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams

Or barbituric acids, or dissect

The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors—

To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual

Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . But to apprehend

The point of intersection of the timeless

With time, is an occupation for the saint—

No occupation either, but something given

And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,

Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.[xiv]

It is only the saint, like Thomas Becket, who is “obedient unto death” that is able to make sense of the symbols, to restore meaning within the semiosphere.[xv] According to Becket, speaking of himself,

A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for his His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God.[xvi]

The saintly martyr, for whom “suffering . . . [is] a way of sharing in the passion and death of Jesus Christ,”[xvii] in a sense renews the sacrifice of Christ by once more making the presence of God apparent. Through the martyrdom of Thomas, says Helen Gardner, “the chorus becomes humanity, confronted by the mystery of iniquity and the mystery of holiness.”[xviii] The Chorus of the Women of Canterbury, and, through them, the audience, are confronted with the two universal aspects of the human condition which imply the existence of an absolute truth, a transcendental signified, and a life beyond the merely biological—as Eliot referred to them elsewhere: “Sin and Redemption.”[xix]

“The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. / Here the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual,” Eliot continues in the Dry Salvages.[xx] The saint, through participation in the activity of the dying and rising god, makes this Incarnation, this union of the signifier and the signified, as well as of the communicator, the receiver, and the message, possible by making it real through participation. Through participating in this participation of the saint in the event and experience of Incarnation, human life and the symbols of the Incarnation with which it is filled gain their significance. “Only if the heroic has meaning can the ordinary have dignity,” writes Gardner.[xxi]

St. Thomas Becket’s sermon, which forms the midsection of Murder in the Cathedral, brings all of this into view and sets into motion its being brought to fruition. Thomas now turns to the audience, which in the play’s first performance were Christians gathered in a cathedral, forcing them to enter into the drama. “Dear children of God,” he begins, reminding them that they are themselves symbols which derive their definition from their relationship to a transcendental signified.[xxii] In this delivery of a sermon to the audience, Eliot subverts the modern tendency to distance oneself from the drama in favor of the medieval habit of entering into the experience of the drama.[xxiii] Eliot, however, attempts to restore his modern, analytically-oriented audience to this earlier way of experiencing-through-witnessing. Addressing the audience as if they were Christians gathered at Mass, the sermon indicates the impending transformations of the mundane into the holy and implicates the audience in the process.[xxiv] For Eliot, “the consummation of the drama, the perfect and ideal drama, is to be found in the ceremony of the Mass.”[xxv] Not only is a dramatic imitation of the Mass a return to the religious rituals out of which medieval theater grew,[xxvi] it is a means of accomplishing the same effect as the Mass: “effecting as end what it signifies as means.”[xxvii] The Mass is simultaneously “commemorative and prophetic,” thereby uniting past, present, future, and eternity, and has as its purpose the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the fusion of symbol and reality, signifier and signified, in which the gathered congregation is expected to share, uniting themselves to each other and to divinity.

Thomas’s sermon reminds the audience/congregation of the link between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. “At the same moment,” he says, “we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”[xxviii] This link between the Incarnation and the Eucharist is, of course, a central motif of the traditional Christian thought from which Eliot drew. In his Against Heresies, the second century church father St. Irenaeus of Lyon declares, “The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, … did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”[xxix] Irenaeus’s statement was later modified into the aphoristic motto of the fourth century orthodox provided by St. Athanasius of Alexandria in his On the Incarnation: “He was made man that we might be made God.”[xxx] Notably, the 7th century theologian St. Maximus the Confessor drew upon this formula in his explication of the effect of partaking of the Eucharist upon the communicant, saying,

The power of this reciprocal gift which deifies man for God through the love of God, and makes God man for man through His love for man, making through this whole exchange God to become man for the deification of man, and man to become God for the hominization of God. For the Word of God who is God wills always and in all things to work the mystery of his embodiment.[xxxi]

Or, in Eliot’s words in the Dry Salvages: “Here the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual.”[xxxii] Signifier and signified, self and other, God and man—all of the separation and alterity which renders communication and significance impossible in the waste land—is here overcome. Here, one is able at last to live “the life of significant soil.”[xxxiii]

The waste land, however, is, in its essence, a place without the Eucharist. In the Grail legends from which Eliot drew via Weston, the hero must pass through the waste land in his search for the Grail, the power of which lies in its connection to the Eucharist.[xxxiv] What “interests Eliot” about the waste land is specifically that it is “the Waste Land from which the Grail is absent; nor does anyone seek to find it.”[xxxv] As such, it is a place which offers “sin and retribution, but no redemption.”[xxxvi] In the waste land, there is only the dissolution of the meanings of life and language, never their significance. Only the Eucharist makes possible the restoration of unity and the resignification of the symbolic.

The saintly martyr, as a participant in the suffering and death of Christ, is also a sharer in this Eucharistic renewal of significance. The link between the martyr and the Eucharist extends as far back as the early Christian practice of using the tombs of martyrs as altars for the Mass, as is recorded in, for example, the second century account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp.[xxxvii] In his sermon, Thomas rhetorically asks, linking the Incarnation and martyrdom, the Eucharist and the saints,  “Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means.”[xxxviii] As a place devoid of the Eucharist, then, the waste land is also a place devoid of saints, as it is the saints who make the Eucharist possible.

As a ritual drama, Murder in the Cathedral is a renewal of the Eucharistic imbuing of significance. “So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once” for the martyr, Thomas says near the conclusion of his sermon, “in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high . . . seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.”[xxxix] Thomas links his impending martyrdom with the Incarnation, and therefore to the Eucharist, as described in the Gospel of John, when “the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”[xl] In an article which appeared in Eliot’s Criterion the autumn before the premier of Murder in the Cathedral, Dawson wrote, “A secularist culture can only exist, so to speak, in the dark. It is out of the order of the wider world of reality. But as soon as the light comes, all the elaborate mechanism that has been constructed for living in the dark becomes useless.”[xli] Significantly, Thomas’s sermon is given on Christmas Day, a day associated with the restoration of light both in the natural cycles following the Winter solstice and in the commemoration of the historical birth of Christ. The nature of light, of course, is to illuminate; light is that substance by which all other substances are made visible and therefore comprehensible.

As a renewal of the light of the Eucharist, that through which all other phenomena are understood, the arrival of Thomas and his impending martyrdom become the catalyst for a renewal of understanding. As the moment of his martyrdom nears, symbols once again begin to signify with increasing clarity. Part II opens once again with the singing of the Chorus of the Women of Canterbury about the signs present in nature. Whereas the natural cycles were meaningless repetition before the arrival of Thomas, however, now they are indicative of some coming terrible event. The Women sing,

Does the bird sing in the South?

Only the sea-bird cries, driven inland by the storm.

What sign of the spring of the year?

Only the death of the old: not a stir, not a shoot, not a breath.

Do the days begin to lengthen?

Longer and darker the day, shorter and colder the night.

Still and stifling the air: but a wind is stored up in the East.

The starved crow sits in the field, attentive; and in the wood

The owl rehearses the hollow note of death.

What signs of a bitter spring?

The wind stored up in the East.[xlii]

The Women of Canterbury, with their newfound ability to see and understand, arrive at the profound truth that “death in the Lord renews” the world, “And the world must be cleaned in the winter, or we shall have only / A sour spring, a parched summer, an empty harvest.”[xliii] Even in their fear and confusion, the Women of Canterbury are able to articulate the need for a Eucharistic renewal of signification as the symbols become clearer.

As the moment of martyrdom nears, the vision of the Women continues to clear and the symbols become ever more apparent. All of the phenomena of the natural world take on new and increasing significance. “Senses are quickened,” the Women sing as they begin to describe the various symbols they have “seen . . . tasted . . . felt . . . heard . . . [and] smelt,”[xliv] each of them a signifier of the coming moment of crisis, of the death of a saint, the in-breaking of a “transcendental signified.” The symbols themselves, however, begin to take on a certain incomprehensibility. In an inversion of the meaning of the Eucharist, the women proclaim, “I have tasted / The savour of putrid flesh in the spoon.”[xlv] Whereas the flower is typically a signifier of life and fecundity, the women sing that they have “smelt / Death in the rose, death in the hollyhock, sweet pea, hyacinth, primrose and cowslip.” At last, the symbols are totally distorted and contradictory, as the world experiences the upheaval of the impending martyrdom: “Corruption in the dish, incense in the latrine, the sewer in the incense, the smell of sweet soap in the woodpath, a hellish sweet scent in the woodpath, while the ground heaved.”[xlvi]

In the midst of this inundation and upheaval of the symbolic, Thomas counsels the women to “be at peace with your thoughts and visions. / These things had to come to you and you to accept them.” One day, however,

You shall forget these things, toiling in the household,

You shall remember them, droning by the fire,

When age and forgetfulness sweeten the memory

Only like a dream that has often been told

And often been changed in the telling. They will seem unreal.

Human kind cannot bear very much reality.[xlvii]

The symbols are a necessary accommodation. Man is incapable of peering too long into the tremendous truth underlying his existence.  While the Dies Irae, a medieval hymn on the judgment of God is sung, this truth is revealed to the Women of Canterbury. The Women envision the oblivion of non-existence, of a world which is not even the waste land, but “the empty land.”[xlviii] While there are symbols which do not signify in the waste land, this “empty land” is devoid even of the symbols. It is the culmination and fulfillment of the lack of a “transcendental signified,” of the notion that there is “no truth.” It is “the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell; / Emptiness, absence, separation from God.”[xlix] Here,

. . . those who were men can no longer turn the mind

To distraction, delusion, escape from dream, pretence,

Where the soul is no longer deceived, for there are no objects, no tones,

No colours, no forms to distract, to divert the soul

From seeing itself, foully united forever, nothing with nothing.[l]

A lack of a signified, in the end, is a lack of significance altogether, and therefore the lack of a signifier. Lack of significance recedes into the annihilation of the symbols themselves. This is the same state which is allegorized in The Waste Land by the utter desolation of the Chapel Perilous.[li] The Women of Canterbury recoil in horror from this vision of meaninglessness. Turning instead to the significance imbued through the Incarnation of a transcendental signified, they sing, “Dead upon the tree, my Saviour, / Let not be in vain Thy labour; / Help me, Lord in my last fear.”[lii]

[i] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 196.

[ii] Eliot, The Waste Land, 72.

[iii] James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore (New York: Gramercy Books, 1981), 211.

[iv] T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (San Diego: Harcourt, 1976), 83.

[v] Francis Fergusson, The Idea of a Theater: A Study of Ten Plays, The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 211.

[vi] Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), 182.

[vii] Ibid., 185.

[viii] Ibid., 122.

[ix] Ibid., 170.

[x] Eliot, Christianity and Culture, 101. Dawson himself was somewhat reticent to accept such an application of his ideas, writing in response that Eliot’s thought on the subject was plagued by “gratuitous difficulties which are due to ignoring the necessary transcendence of the religious factor” (Dawson, Dynamics of World History, 113). For Dawson, “(1) race, i.e. the genetic factor; (2) environment, i.e. the geographical factor; (3) function or occupation, i.e. the economic factor” and “thought or the psychological factor” were “the three . . . main influences which form and modify human culture.” Dawson considered the psychological factor the most important of the four and religion at the center of this psychological factor, but religion remained, nonetheless, only one, even if the most important, element among many and could not be directly and absolutely correlated with culture to the extent Dawson feared Eliot had posited. See Christopher Dawson, The Age of the Gods: A Study in the Origins of Culture in Prehistoric Europe and the Ancient East (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), xxiv.

[xi] Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1997), 7.

[xii] Brlek, “Polyphiloprogenitive.”

[xiii] Paul Murray, T. S. Eliot and Mysticism: The Secret History of Four Quartets (London: MacMillan, 1991), 224.

[xiv] Eliot, The Dry Salvages, V.1–12, 17–22.

[xv] Phil 2:8 (KJV).

[xvi] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 199.

[xvii] Leo D. Lefebure, “The Understanding of Suffering in the Early Christian Church,” Claritas: Journal of Dialogue and Culture 4 no. 2 (October 2015): 36.

[xviii] Helen Gardner, The Art of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 139.

[xix] Eliot, “Baudelaire,” 235.

[xx] Eliot, Dry Salvages, V.32–34.

[xxi] Gardner, 136.

[xxii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 198.

[xxiii] Clifford Davidson, “Murder in the Cathedral and the Saint’s Play Tradition,” in Bloom, T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, 128.

[xxiv] Ayers, 111.

[xxv] T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932), 35.

[xxvi] Davidson, 126.

[xxvii] Ayers, 106.

[xxviii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 198.

[xxix] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, in The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), bk. V, Preface.

[xxx] Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in Athanasius: Selected Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 4, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), ch. 54.

[xxxi] Maximus the Confessor, quoted in Lars Thurnberg, Man and the Cosmos: The Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 9.

[xxxii] Eliot, The Dry Salvages V.33–34.

[xxxiii] Ibid., V.50.

[xxxiv] Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 222.

[xxxv] Ibid., 328.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” in The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, ch. XVII–XVIII.

[xxxviii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 199.

[xxxix] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 200.

[xl] John 1:5 (KJV).

[xli] Christopher Dawson, “Religion and the Totalitarian State,” The Criterion 14, no. 54 (October 1934): 1.

[xlii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 201.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Ibid., 207.

[xlv] Ibid.

[xlvi] Ibid., 207–208.

[xlvii] Ibid., 208–209.

[xlviii] Ibid., 210.

[xlix] Ibid.

[l] Ibid.

[li] Derek Traversi, T. S. Eliot: The Longer Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 50.

[lii] Ibid., 211.

They Know and Do Not Know (Incarnational Semiotics 3)

It is Thomas’s arrival that finally brings the “terror of eternity” to Canterbury. His first word upon entering, a simultaneous blessing and admonishment to “peace,” sweeps aside the Second Priest’s attempts to once again stifle the symbols which have begun at last to signify.[i] “You go on croaking like frogs in the treetops: / But frogs at least can be cooked and eaten,” the Second Priest tells the Women of Canterbury.[ii] While he attempts to destroy one symbol, he attempts immediately to replace it with another false symbol. “Let me ask you to at the least put on pleasant faces,” he requests of the Women.[iii]

Thomas, though, understands that replacing one incomplete symbol with another false symbol is insufficient. “They know and do not know,” he tells the Second Priest, referring to the Women of Canterbury but, no doubt, including here the priest himself.[iv] While the Women have been “croaking like frogs,” all of it has been an attempt to understand, to “know.” “It [the human mind] needs the multiplicity of words. It does not really know what it knows,” Hans-Georg Gadamer writes.[v] While the priest intends to destroy and distort symbols to evade reality, the Women at least seek gropingly at understanding through their multiplication of words. While “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality,” the women outdo the priest in that they make an attempt at it.[vi]

Thomas himself, however, is not immune from the desire to fall back into the apparent calm—which, in truth, is the “boredom and horror”—of the mundane, the simple, the absence of signification, and therefore of significance, in the pattern in which “there is nothing to do about anything.”[vii] The Fourth Tempter tempts Thomas to return to the waste land in terms that recall Eliot’s abhorrence at the idea that human life might be “a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end”:

Man’s life is a cheat and a disappointment;

All things are unreal,

Unreal or disappointing:

The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat,

The prizes given at the children’s party,

The prize awarded for the English Essay,

The scholar’s degree, the statesman’s decoration.

All things become less real, man passes

From unreality to unreality.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Passing from deception to deception,

From grandeur to grandeur to final illusion.[viii]

At this, the Women of Canterbury and the Priests, too, join in agreement with the Tempters. Together, the three groups attempt to persuade Thomas to leave. The Women of Canterbury tell him that they

. . . have gone on living,

Living and partly living,

Picking together the pieces,

Gathering faggots at nightfall,

Building a partial shelter,

For sleeping, and eating and drinking and laughter.[ix]

Now, though, they are assailed with the symbolic. “Now a new terror has soiled us,” they cry, “which none can avert, none can avoid, flowing under our feet and over the sky.”[x] It is inescapable, “flowing in at the ear and the mouth and the eye.” They declare, “the forms take shape in the dark air.” The Women of Canterbury are trapped within a closed system of signification which is being torn open. In their confusion, they might have spoken the same words as the famous statement of Niels Bohr: “We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down.”[xi]

[i] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 182.

[ii] Ibid., 181.

[iii] Ibid., 182.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 443.

[vi] T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton I.42–43.

[vii] Eliot, The Family Reunion, 271.

[viii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 194.

[ix] Ibid., 195.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Niels Bohr, in Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume, A. P. French and P. J. Kennedy, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 302.


Seven Years of Emptiness (Incarnational Semiotics 2)

In the opening to Murder in the Cathedral, before the arrival of Thomas Becket, Eliot once again ventures back into the waste land, still populated, as before, by its J. Alfred Prufrocks and Gerontions. Here, “it is impossible to say just what I mean”[i] and life is “measured out . . . with coffee spoons.”[ii] No one would “dare / Disturb the universe.”[iii] They “have no ghosts” because there is nothing of the Spirit or the spiritual.[iv] One of the priests of Canterbury tells Thomas, upon his arrival, that the time he has been gone has been “seven years of emptiness.”[v] Therefore, declare the Women of Canterbury, “there is no danger / For us, and there is no safety in the cathedral.”[vi]

Eliot has, in short, returned once again to the intellectual milieu in which he came of age and of which he remained a part for most of his early career. In large part, this intellectual milieu was dominated by the figures whom later postmodernists would identify as having provided the foundation for their theories. In her preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology, his translator, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, points to the intellectual background of deconstruction in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Martin Heidegger.[vii] Both Nietzsche and Freud were early influences on Eliot. Eliot studied Nietzsche while a graduate student and Nietzsche, in turn, exerted some influence on Eliot’s approach to poetry and drama later, as John Zilcosky and others have shown.[viii] Eliot also read Freud around the same time, referring to a work by one of Freud’s disciples as “‘possibly’ one of the most ‘notable productions’ among recent philosophical works.”[ix] While Heidegger’s major work was published too late to exert an early influence, the similarity between his and Eliot’s ideas has been noted as well by Jain,[x] Dominic Griffiths,[xi] and others.

As Spivak goes on to explain, it was the combined force of the ideas of Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger which enabled Derrida’s deconstructionist turn, embodied in his pronouncement that there is, simply put, “no ‘truth.’”[xii]  Instead, there are only “the texts, the chains, and the systems of traces.”[xiii] There is, in other words, only “différance,” the endless train of “signifiers,” or words, which, in turn, never point to a “signified,” or endpoint for the chain of language and thought, but only to further “signifiers.”[xiv] Since, in Spivak’s words, “sign will always lead to sign, one substituting the other . . . as signifier and signified in turn . . . knowledge is not a systematic tracking down of a truth that is hidden but may be found” as had hitherto been assumed by thinkers belonging to the Western intellectual tradition.[xv] Instead, says Spivak, quoting Derrida, “it is rather the field ‘of freeplay’” in which one is to follow each signifier to its signified which is, in turn, a signifier for another signified endlessly within “the closure of a finite ensemble.”[xvi] “The absence of the transcendental signified,” the metaphysical source and telos of thought and language, is “limitlessness of play,” says Derrida.[xvii] Spivak’s comparison of Derrida’s ideas with “even such empirical events as answering a child’s question or consulting the dictionary” in their similar revelation of the fact that “one sign leads to another and so on indefinitely” is apt.[xviii]

As Nevo notes, Eliot in 1922, the year of the publication of The Waste Land, had already taken a turn very much like Derrida’s deconstructionist turn of 1967. In The Waste Land, she writes, “symbols” do not “function as foci. They refuse to symbolize. They explode and proliferate. They turn themselves inside out, diffuse their meanings, and collapse back again into disarticulated images.”[xix] The same world is revisited before Thomas’s arrival in Canterbury. The Women of Canterbury declare,

We do not wish anything to happen.

Seven years we have lived quietly,

Succeeded in avoiding notice,

Living and partly living.[xx]

Repeating the refrain “living and partly living,” the Women explain that “there have been oppression and luxury, / There have been poverty and license.” “Sometimes the harvest is good” and other years it is not. They “have kept the feasts, heard the masses” and they “have seen births, deaths and marriages” as well as “various scandals.” None of these, however, have meant anything. Until Thomas’s arrival, all of these potentially portentous events have signified nothing.[xxi]

It is only with Thomas’s arrival impending that the Women are able to declare “evil the wind, and bitter the sea, and grey the sky, grey grey grey.”[xxii] As a result, though the people have “talked not always in whispers,” they have been cut off from each other, each with “our private terrors, / Our particular shadows, our secret fears.”[xxiii] There is a sense of isolation and unreality that permeates.[xxiv] Only “now” that Becket is approaching, sing the Women of Canterbury, “a great fear is upon us, a fear not of one but of many.”[xxv] Their inability to understand and articulate, however, is only increased by their shared experience. “We / Are afraid in a fear which we cannot know,” they sing, “which we cannot face, which none understands.” Indeed, “our selves are lost lost / In a final fear which none understands.” Harry, in the Family Reunion, written shortly after Murder in the Cathedral, expresses the heightening of horror at the inability to communicate: “Oh, there must be another way of talking / That would get us somewhere. You don’t understand me. / You can’t understand me.”[xxvi] Individually, Eliot’s characters, the Women of Canterbury included, cannot make sense of the signs, but communally they cannot make sense even of themselves.

In addition, even the liturgical and formal aspects of life in this first part of the play are deficient or perverted.[xxvii] As the Herald announces when he proclaims the coming of Thomas, for example, there is “peace” between the Pope, the King of France, the King of England, and Thomas, “but not the kiss of peace.”[xxviii] As St. Augustine indicates in his Sermon 227, the kiss of peace, exchanged, in the Latin Rite of the Mass, just after the consecration of the Eucharistic elements and the communal recitation of the Pater Noster, is linked with the Eucharist and the Lord’s Prayer as “great and holy sacraments” in which the “hearts” of Christians are brought together along with their “lips.”[xxix] The lack of accord between the feuding parties is therefore a lack of Eucharistic unity as well.[xxx] Once again there is a failure to overcome the separation between individuals, to communicate effectively or to participate in a shared experience. Even those signs which signify, then, such as they are, signify only indirectly and incompletely.

Unlike Derrida with his notion of “freeplay,” Eliot does not celebrate the lack of a “transcendental signified” to bring unity and direction to the symbolic.[xxxi] Instead, as Eliot wrote in a letter to Paul Elmer More in 1930, “I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end.”[xxxii]

[i] T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” line 104.

[ii] Ibid., line 51.

[iii] Ibid. lines 45–45.

[iv] T. S. Eliot, “Gerontion,” in Ricks and McCue, eds., 32 (line 30).

[v] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 182.

[vi] Ibid., 175.

[vii] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, preface, in Of Grammatology, by Jacques Derrida (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), xli.

[viii] John Zilcosky, “Modern Monuments: T. S. Eliot, Nietzsche, and the Problem of History,” Journal of Modern Literature 29, no. 1 (2006): 21.

[ix] Robert Crawford, Young Eliot: From St. Louis to the Waste Land (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 293.

[x] Jain, 148.

[xi] Dominic Griffiths. “Looking into the Heart of Light: Considering the Poetic Event in the Work of T. S. Eliot and Martin Heidegger,” Philosophy and Literature 38, no. 2 (2014): 350–367.

[xii] Spivak, xxviii.

[xiii] Derrida, Of Grammatology, 65. Emphasis in original.

[xiv] Ibid., 15.

[xv] Spivak, xix.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Derrida, 50.

[xviii] Spivak, xvii.

[xix] Nevo, 456.

[xx] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 180.

[xxi] Eleanor Cook, “T. S. Eliot and the Carthaginian Peace,” ELH 46 no. 2 (Summary 1979): 353.

[xxii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 180.

[xxiii] Ibid., 181.

[xxiv] Michael Goldman, “Fear in the Way: The Design of Eliot’s Drama,” in Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Wasteland”, ed. A. Walton Litz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 164–165.

[xxv] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 181.

[xxvi] Eliot, The Family Reunion, in Complete Poems and Plays, 269.

[xxvii] Robert W. Ayers, “Murder in the Cathedral: A “Liturgy Less Divine,” in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988), 109.

[xxviii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 178.

[xxix] Augustine, “Sermon 227,” in Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, tr. Mary Sarah Muldowney (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 197–198.

[xxx] See 1 Corinthians 10:16–17.

[xxxi] Derrida, 50.

[xxxii] T. S. Eliot to Paul Elmer More, June 2, 1930, in The Letters of T. S. Eliot: 1930-1931, vol. 5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 210.


Incarnational Semiotics: The Redemption of Significance in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (Incarnational Semiotics 1)

The similarity of the insights in T. S. Eliot’s early poetry to the thought of the postmodernists a generation later has not gone unnoticed. Ruth Nevo, for example, claimed for The Waste Land the status of “ur-text of deconstruction,” noting that “The Waste Land deconstructs distinctions between critic and author, ‘fiction’ and ‘fact,’ presentation and representation, origin and supplement. These are the classic, central deconstructionist themes.”[i] Eliot’s perspicacity as well as his proximity to the intellectual avant-garde of his day granted him the foresight to predict the course of the intellectual currents of the twentieth century. Through his thorough of early semioticians like Charles S. Peirce and Josiah Royce while researching and writing his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University Eliot was able to anticipate important later developments in hermeneutics and semiotics.[ii]

Whereas Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and other postmodern theorists saw the direction of their thought as a “liberating,”[iii] and therefore positive, enterprise, Eliot was deeply troubled by the implications of lack of meaning for human life and the limits of communication. Where “the average sensual man,” writes Russell Kirk, quoting Eliot’s unfinished first play Sweeney Agonistes, “could not understand the boredom and the horror of existence limited to ‘birth, and copulation, and death,’” the notion obsessed and terrified Eliot.[iv] Linked to this “horror and boredom of wearisome repetitiveness,” for Eliot, was the inability to communicate effectively.[v]

Admittedly, Eliot is not typically thought of a semiotician.[vi] At heart of semiotics, however, are questions of communication.[vii] And exploration of communication and its difficulties is a central aspect of Eliot’s work and was clearly a personal preoccupation of Eliot himself. Eliot’s meditation upon struggles in communication which consumes most of the final section of East Coker is indicative of his thought as a whole. There, Eliot writes that

. . . every attempt

Is a wholly new start , and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer wants to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion.[viii]

Characters like J. Alfred Prufrock, for whom “it is impossible to say just what I mean,”[ix] and Harry, of the Family Reunion, who explains that “I can only speak / And you cannot hear me,”[x] express, for Eliot, a universal inability to communicate, to encode and decode messages in a manner that allows meaningful understanding between two persons.

Eliot definitively rejected the “horror and boredom” of meaninglessness, with its accompanying inability to articulate and understand, with his conversion to Christianity in 1927. This rejection of what Eliot termed “the ennui of modern life” in favor of the “significance of living” through a recognition “that what really matters is Sin and Redemption,” gave the shape to much of Eliot’s work for the last several decades of his life, including most of his dramatic works and the Four Quartets.[xi] His first, and arguably best, success in capturing this turn from meaninglessness to significance came, however, in his first dramatic success, Murder in the Cathedral, in 1935. There, all persons and events derive their significance from an ultimate transcendent signified.[xii] In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot captured his turn toward significance in what may be tentatively termed an incarnational semiotics, a restoration of the meaning of life and language through an in-breaking of the supernatural into the mundane which fuses the signifier and the signified into a single reality.

[i] Ruth Nevo, “The Waste Land: Ur-Text of Deconstruction,” New Literary History 13, no. 3 (1982): 460–461.

[ii] Manju Jain, T. S. Eliot and American Philosophy: The Harvard Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 147.

[iii] Tristanne J. Connolly and Steve Clark, eds., Liberating Medicine, 1720–1835 (New York: Routledge, 2016), 6.

[iv] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2008), 112.

[v] Oscar Chenyi Lbang, “The Horrors of a Disconnected Existence: Frustration, Despair and Alienation in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot,” Wenshan Review of Literature and Culture 3, no. 2 (June 2010): 44.

[vi] Tomislav Brlek, “Polyphiloprogenitive: T.S. Eliot’s Notion of Culture,” Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften, no. 15 (July 2004), (accessed June 24, 2016), http://www.inst.at/trans/15Nr/01_2/brlek15.htm.

[vii] Thomas A. Sebeok, Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 5.

[viii] T. S. Eliot, East Coker, V.3–11. This and all subsequent quotes from Eliot’s works of poetry are taken from The Poems of T. S. Eliot, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

[ix] T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” line 104.

[x] T. S. Eliot, The Family Reunion, 235. This and all subsequent quotes from Eliot’s dramatic works are taken from The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971).

[xi] T. S. Eliot, “Baudelaire” (1930), in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 235.

[xii] Michael Beehler, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and the Discourses of Difference (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 33.


The Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.4)

In the next chapter, we will discuss the beginning of the spread of Christianity. Almost immediately after the death of Jesus, the apostles and other followers of Jesus spread out around the Mediterranean and beyond to teach people about him and his message. Before we study that history, however, we will first discuss what the message was that they spread out to teach.

The earliest Christians believed that Jesus was the messiah who had come to bring salvation to all people. Salvation, they said, is rescue from sin and its consequences. According to the early Christians, sin is more than just doing bad things, though doing bad things are certainly a part of sin. They said that sin is being something other than what God created human beings to be. The early Christians believed that God had made human beings to be his children. They should, then, love God as their father and love all other human beings as their brothers and sisters. And, of course, they should behave in a way that shows they love God and love all people.

People had sinned, however, by not loving God and not loving other people. Instead of worshiping God, people started to worship other gods. Instead of treating other people well and taking care of them, people had been greedy and selfish. They mistreated other people, hurt them, and stole from them. By doing these things, they had become something different from what God made them to be. They were not behaving like God’s children, but like his enemies.

The result of sin, said the early Christians, is that human beings became separated from God. Sin acted like a wall that made it impossible for God and humans to have the close relationship they are supposed to have. They believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Just as the son of a human being is a human being, the son of God is also God. By becoming a human being, God had broken down the wall that separated humans from God. The early Christians called this event, in which God became a human being, the Incarnation.

By the Incarnation, God defeated sin. He still had to destroy the consequence of sin, however. The early Christians said the consequence of sin was death. Because God is the source of all life, human beings died because they were separated from God. This, they said, is why it was necessary for Jesus to die and resurrect.

Jesus was able to die just like any other human being, but because he was God he was able to come back from the dead. By doing this, he defeated death. The Incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus were seen by the early Christians as the victory of God over sin and its consequences. He had finally brought salvation. Each human being, they said, can have salvation by believing in Jesus and behaving in the way he told people to behave. The early Christians called their message about Jesus the “Gospel,” a Greek word which means “good news.”


Review Questions

  1. According to the early Christians, what is the consequence of sin?
  1. According to the early Christians, how did Jesus defeat sin?
  1. According to the early Christians, how did Jesus defeat the consequence of sin?

Personhood in Early Christian Thought and Practice (Personhood Part IV)

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism in the middle of the first century AD and emerged as a separate religion altogether by the end of that century. Among the most distinctive doctrines of early Christianity were the beliefs that God had become incarnate as a human being and, through a process of recapitulation, had opened the possibility of spiritual salvation to all people. The idea of the incarnation is perhaps the most central and distinctive belief of Christianity. The doctrine’s classic and arguably most eloquent statement is found in the opening to the Gospel of John, composed probably in the last decade of the first century AD: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”17 Christians believed that God had become man in the person of Jesus Christ, thereby redeeming and sanctifying human nature. The doctrine of the incarnation was linked with the idea of the Imago Dei from a very early point in Christian thought and served to significantly strengthen and solidify the importance and content of that idea.18 The early Christian author and bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in about 180, summarized the relationship of the two doctrines and their implications for humanity, writing,

And then, again, this Word was manifested when the Word of God was made man, assimilating Himself to man, and man to Himself, so that by means of his resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father. For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not [actually] shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created, Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both these: for He both showed forth the image truly, since He became Himself what was His image; and He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.19

In the same work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus also offered the earliest expanded explanations of early Christian soteriology. In his explanations, he asserts that “the Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred.”20 To that end, according to Irenaeus, he passed through every age and state, “not despising or evading any condition of humanity” and “sanctifying every age” as he passed through each without sinning.21 Finally, he suffered and died in perfect obedience, undoing the sin of Adam, and resurrected, defeating death. In doing all of this, he made spiritual salvation possible; in the most succinct soteriological statement of Irenaeus: “our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”22 By the fourth century, the standard statement of Christian soteriology was even more succinct and direct: “He was made man that we might be made God.”23 Significantly, this salvation and deification was made available to all people of any age, class, or gender. The declaration of the universality of salvation by the important early Christian leader Paul in about AD 50-60 seems as if it had been formulated to run directly contrary to the ethos of the Greco-Roman world: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”24

For those who heard of these beliefs in Late Antiquity, they were shocking. These unique Christian beliefs were seen as perplexing, subversive, and worthy of mockery by both Jews as well as followers of Greco-Roman pagan religions and philosophies.25 Christianity was particularly threatening to members of the latter groups as its simultaneous continuation of the zeal for social justice present in Judaism coupled with the reinvigoration and expansion of this zeal in conjunction with its own original ideas proved very attractive to the oppressed and marginalized classes of the Roman Empire. One early Christian text, written in the second half of the first century, records Roman opponents of Christianity claiming Christians “have turned the world upside down.”26 In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, “Christianity’s claim that all were equal before God and all equally precious to him ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current.”27 As a result, Christians faced persecution from both Jewish and Roman authorities as well as disdain and suspicion from their neighbors. In spite of this persecution, however, the poor, slaves, women, and other marginalized and oppressed classes of the Roman Empire flocked to the new religion. Such was the pull that Christianity exerted on these groups and, simultaneously, the disgust it excited in the Roman Empire’s elite, that Celsus, one of Christianity’s early detractors, was able to write in about 178 that it was “only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the divine word [that is, Christian evangelists] wish to make converts.”28

The practical ramifications of Christian ideas about personhood were tremendous. With the introduction of the idea of a Kingdom of God which stood over and in opposition to the world and which all Christians, by virtue of membership in the Church, were members of, the idea of nationhood, and therefore any possibility of xenophobia, receded into superfluity. The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, an early Christian apologetic text written sometime in the mid to late second century, delights in the diversity of Christians and their ubiquitous presence in “Greek as well as barbarian cities,” asserting “they pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”29 The treatment of the poor, slaves, and other low social classes in early Christian writings similarly revels in the counterintuitive assertion that they are in fact the “happy” and “blessed” bearers of a better spiritual condition than the materially prosperous and socially powerful.30

Perhaps the most powerful and practical explication of early Christian views on slavery is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. At 335 words in the original Greek, it is the shortest surviving letter of Paul and one of the shortest books of the New Testament. Onesimus, a Christian slave whose master, Philemon, was also a Christian, had run away from his master and joined up with Paul. Paul, however, decided to send Onesimus back to his master with this letter. It must be remembered that Philemon was a Roman pater familias, or male head of household. According to the laws cited earlier in this paper, Philemon had the right of deciding life and death within his household and Onesimus was his property. Paul’s words, in this historical context, are remarkable and astounding; he admonishes Philemon to “receive” Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh [that is, as a sharer in a common human nature] and in the Lord [that is, as a fellow Christian].”31

By the end of the fourth century, this assertion of an ontological equality, shared nature, and spiritual brotherhood of master and slave would become, in the minds of some of the greatest and most influential Christian thinkers and leaders, arguably, the world’s first full-fledged ideology of abolitionism. Gregory of Nyssa, an important fourth century bishop, for instance, was one of the first writers in history to condemn slavery as an institution. Significantly, he based his arguments against slavery on Christian anthropology, writing,

What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?32

Not all Christian leaders were willing to go as far as Gregory in their condemnation of slavery. Many, including such important figures as John Chrysostom, a late fourth and early fifth century bishop of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the single greatest influence on subsequent theological development in Western Christianity, were more equivocal in their condemnation. Both Chrysostom and Augustine insisted, for instance, that slavery was a necessary evil that had been instituted by God as a result of man’s primeval fall into sin.

As ambiguous as some of these condemnations of slavery were, they were, nonetheless, condemnations, and such a condemnatory attitude had obvious ramifications in Christian practice. Several slaves and former slaves, for example, were elected to the highest positions of leadership in the Church. In fact, one Onesimus was named as the bishop of Ephesus by Ignatius of Antioch in a letter written in about 107; while some modern historians doubt the identification, Christian hagiography has traditionally identified this Onesimus with the Onesimus about whom Paul wrote his letter to Philemon.33 34 In the third century, one former slave, Callistus, who was elected bishop of Rome, the most prominent see in the Christian Church, even decreed, in defiance of the Roman law contained in the Twelve Tables, that “among Christians a slave could marry a free person with the blessing of the Church.”35 By the fifth century, Patrick, the famous missionary and bishop of Ireland who was also a former slave, was able to write in a way that assumed rather than argued the innate immorality of Christians enslaving fellow Christians.36 Slavery declined throughout the Middle Ages, replaced by serfdom throughout much of Europe, and was not revived as a major institution again until the early modern era.

Early Christian ideas regarding women also presented a major challenge to Greco-Roman conceptions of personhood. Henry Chadwick, in his classic treatment of early Christianity, points out that, in Late Antiquity, “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women” specifically because “Christians believed in the equality of men and women before God.”37 For this belief, early Christians drew not only on the ideas of the Imago Dei and the incarnation, but a specific recognition of the distinctive role that had been played by the Virgin Mary in the redemptive work of Jesus according to the framework of early Christian soteriology. In one of his discussions of the process of salvation through recapitulation, Irenaeus of Lyons summarized this role:

The Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled,—was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain (portaret) God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.38

This understanding of the role played by the Virgin Mary in the scheme of salvation as well as the individual life of the believer would continue to expand throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Second century documents such as the Infancy Gospel of James make such claims as that Mary was dedicated to the service of God by her parents before her birth, raised in the Temple of Jerusalem, and remained a virgin consecrated to God throughout her life.39 By the middle of the third century, prayers were being addressed to her; the earliest surviving example of such prayers dates from about 250: “Under thy compassion we take refuge, Theotokos [Birthgiver-of-God]; do not disregard our prayers in the midst of tribulation, but deliver us from danger, O Only Pure, Only Blessed One.”40 In 431, the Council of Ephesus, considered the Third Ecumenical Council, officially approved the Virgin Mary’s popular title of Θεοτόκος (Theotokos, meaning “God-bearer” and often, though incorrectly, translated as “Mother of God”).41 The Middle Ages would see such expansions in Mariology and in Marian devotion as the advent of the Rosary, the addition of holidays to the Christian festal calendar which celebrated her sinless birth and assumption into heaven, and her acquisition of such titles as “Queen of Heaven.”42 These views and practices surrounding Mary clearly had important implications for views about women more generally.

By the end of the fourth century, Gregory Nazienzen, the bishop of Constantinople who presided over the Second Ecumenical Council in that city in 381, was proclaiming the full ontological equality of men and women on the basis of distinctively Christian beliefs, simultaneously calling for the legal and social equality of women. In his “Fifth Theological Oration,” he wrote, addressing Roman men,

What was the reason why they restrained the woman, but indulged the man, and that a woman who practices evil against her husband’s bed is an adulteress, and the penalties of the law for this are very severe; but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he has no account to give? I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. Those who made the law were men, and therefore their legislation is hard on women, since they have placed children also under the authority of their fathers, while leaving the weaker sex uncared for. God does not do so, but says Honor your father and your mother, which is the first commandment with promise. … See the equality of [God’s] legislation. There is one Maker of man and woman; one debt is owed by children to both parents.

… How, though you are equally a body, do you legislate unequally? If you inquire into the worse — The Woman Sinned, and so did Adam. The serpent deceived them both; and one was not found to be the stronger and the other weaker. But do you consider the better? Christ saves both by His Passion. Was He made flesh for the Man? So He was also for the Woman. Did He die for the Man? The Woman also is saved by His death. He is called of the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the man is honored; but He is born of a Virgin, and this is on the woman’s side. The two, He says, shall be one flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honor.43

Like slaves, women were also able to attain important positions in the early Church. The gospels record that Jesus had many followers who were women. One of them, Mary Magdalene, was the first to see and speak with him following his resurrection and was sent by him to tell the other followers that he had come back from the dead.44 For fulfilling this role, she was designated “equal to the apostles” and “apostle to the apostles” in the later Christian hagiographic tradition. Paul also mentions several important women in the first century Church throughout his letters, such as Junia, whom he describes as “of note among the apostles.”45

Christianity also offered women an opportunity to adopt a way of life which freed them from the atmosphere of subjugation and androcentrism which permeated Greco-Roman family life. From an early point, Christians adopted celibacy as their ideal. In his first letter to the Corinthians, written in about AD 55, for instance, Paul recommended that virgins remain unmarried and that widows not remarry.46 For women in the Roman Empire, a life of celibacy represented a means of escape from the patriarchal system of the Roman family in which women were subject to their fathers, husbands, and other male family members. According to Princeton professor of religion Elaine Pagels, “their vows of celibacy served many converts as a declaration of independence from the crushing pressures of tradition and of their families, who ordinarily arranged marriages at puberty and so determined the course of their children’s lives.”47

This idealization of celibacy developed into institutional monasticism by the end of the fourth century. The monastic way of life continued throughout the Middle Ages to attract many women who desired independence from patriarchal family structures. Significantly, female monastics, like the female martyrs before them, attracted a great deal of reverence by Medieval Christians of both genders. One example of this reverence is found in the hagiography of Mary of Egypt, written by Sophronius, bishop of Jerusalem, in the seventh century. According to his hagiography, Mary had renounced her former sinful lifestyle and, like many others before her, retreated into the deserts of Egypt to adopt a life of fasting and prayer. While walking through the desert, she was discovered by Zosimas, a priest and monk at a nearby monastery, who immediately recognized her holiness. In contradiction to the traditional Eastern Christian practice, in which it is customary for anyone meeting a priest to bow, ask for his blessing, and kiss his hand, “Zosimas threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing.”48 Sophronius’ account continues,

She likewise bowed down before him. And thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other’s blessing. And one word alone could be heard from both:

“Bless me!” After a long while the woman said to Zosimas:

“Abba Zosimas, it is you who must give blessing and pray. You are dignified by the order of priesthood and for many years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries.”

This flung Zosimas into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her:

“O mother, filled with the spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent — for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.”

Then giving way before the wish of the elder the woman said:

“Blessed is God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls.”

Zosimas answered:


One of the most important roles that women served in the early Church was to bring Christianity into the households of Rome’s aristocracy, which eventually allowed the Church to attain a measure of wealth, prestige, and power. According to Chadwick, “it was often through the wives that it [Christianity] penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance.”50 Even the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine I, probably did so under the influence of women. Although he and his hagiographers attributed his conversion to a divine vision he claimed to have witnessed the night before an important battle,51 there was no lack in Christian influence from the women in his life. His mother, Helena, was a Christian and, though the date of her conversion is debated, may have provided him with an education in and exposure to Christianity as a child.52 In addition, his half-sister, Anastasia, bore a name which was largely unique to and popular among Christians and which, in Greek, means “resurrection.” This may indicate that his step-mother, Theodora, who would have been responsible for naming her daughter, was a Christian as well.53 Though it is difficult to discern the details, it is clear that Constantine’s initial exposure to Christianity almost certainly came to him through the influence of the women in his life.

The views of early Christians about children also differed substantially from those which predominated throughout the Greco-Roman world around them. According to O.M. Bakke, a historian of Christianity whose studies have focused on the development of ideas about childhood in Late Antiquity, “whereas pagans thought that a newborn baby was not a human person in the full sense, patristic thinking implies that the newborn possesses the fullness of human dignity.”54 He concludes from his examination of the basis for this belief that “this positive assessment of the worth of babies is connected with the idea that all human beings, even small children, are created in the image of God.”55 This reasoning about the spiritual status of children is evident in the writings of Cyprian of Carthage, an influential North African bishop of the third century, who argued that infants should be baptized on the eighth day after their birth in parallel with the Old Testament admonition to circumcise male children on the eighth day.56 According to Cyprian, infants must be baptized so that “no soul be lost.”57 He continues,

For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God? To us, indeed, and to our eyes, according to the worldly course of days, they who are born appear to receive an increase. But whatever things are made by God, are completed by the majesty and work of God their Maker.58

In another work, the same Cyprian also indicates that it was standard practice in the Christian Church for infants to receive communion before they were even “able to speak” or “able to understand” the Eucharist.59 That infants took part in the sacraments of the Church indicates that they were recognized as possessing full personhood and a status of spiritual equality with adult Christians.

These beliefs led early Christians to condemn practices such as abortion, infanticide, and the use of children for the sexual gratification of adults, all common practices of the Greco-Roman world. The Didache, a late first or early second century text which may be the earliest surviving Christian text not included in the New Testament and which was attributed to the apostles by early Christians, explicitly condemns all three practices in its second chapter. In regards to sexual relations between adults and children, the Didache states simply, “you shall not commit pederasty,” listing the practice along with murder, fornication, and theft.60 In its condemnations of abortion and infanticide, the Didache explicitly equates these practices with murder, commanding, “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”61

These early Christian ideas concerning barbarians, slaves, women, and children ran directly counter to the ideas prevalent in the Greco-Roman world, which ideas had been written into law in the Roman Empire. In the early fourth century, however, Constantine became the first Christian Roman emperor. Julian the Apostate, Constantine’s nephew, whose brief reign lasted only two years, was the only non-Christian emperor after Constantine, and even he had been raised as a Christian and left the Church as an adolescent. By the end of the fourth century, under the Emperor Theodosius, Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire. A long process by which the early Christian views of barbarians, slaves, women, and children replaced those of the Greco-Roman world in both thought and law ensued. It is this process that characterizes much of the culture, law, and philosophy of the Middle Ages.


17 John 1:1, 14 (NKJV).

18 2 Corinthians 4:4, Colossians 1:15, and Hebrews 1:3, for example, all explicitly link the Imago Dei and the incarnation. This connection would play a particularly pivotal role in the iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries in the Byzantine Empire, becoming an especially important idea on Eastern Christianity as a result.

19 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 16, par. 2, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

20 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 19, par. 1.

21 Ibid., book 2, ch. 22, par. 4.

22 Ibid., book 5, preface.

23 Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, 54, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol.4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

24 Galatians 3:28 (NKJV).

25 According to St. Paul, writing in about AD 54, “we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23, NKJV).

26 Acts 17:6 (NKJV).

27 Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 44.

28 Celsus, as quoted in Origen, Against Celsus, book 3, ch. 49, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

29 Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, 5, in Ante-Nicene Fathers , Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

30 The word μακάριος (makarios) used, for example, in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11), although commonly translated into English as “blessed” carries connotations of both blessedness and happiness.

31 Philemon 15-16.

32 International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Ecclesiastes: An EnglishVersion with Commentary and Supporting Studies: Proceedings of the Seventh International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, ed. Hall, Stuart George, trans. Hall, Stuart George (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993), 73-74. This entire discussion depends upon Eric Denby, “The First Abolitionist? Gregory of Nyssa on Ancient Roman Slavery,” 9 May 2011, http://www.academia.edu/1485109/The_First_Abolitionist_Gregory_of_Nyssa_on_Ancient_Roman_Slavery (accessed 23 December 2012).

33 Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 1, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

34 “Apostle Onesimus of the Seventy,” Orthodox Church in America, http://oca.org/saints/lives/2013/01/04/100036-apostle-onesimus-of-the-seventy (accessed 16 April 2013).

35 R. S. Milward, Apostles and Martyrs (Leominster: Gracewing Publishing, 1997), 98.

36 Patrick, “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” http://www.confessio.ie/etexts/epistola_english# (accessed 16 April 2013).

37 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1967), 58.

38 Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies,” book 5, ch. 19, par. 1.

39 Infancy Gospel of James, in Bart Ehrman, ed., Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

40 “Under thy compassion we take refuge…”, Frederica.com, http://www.frederica.com/gallery/places-and-things/1067611 (accessed 16 April 2013).

41 “Medieval Sourcebook: Council of Ephesus, 431,” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/ephesus.asp (accessed 16 April 2013).

42 Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

43 Gregory Nazianzen, “The Fifth Theological Oration,” 6-7, of “Oration XXXVII,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

44 Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:9-11, Luke 24:10, John. 20:2.

45 Romans 16:7 (NKJV).

46 1 Corinthians 7:25-40.

47 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Random House, 1988), 20.

48 Sophronius of Jerusalem, “The Life of Our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt,” (March 1996), http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/maryegypt.asp (accessed 16 April 2013).

49 Ibid.

50 Chadwick, 58.

51 That is the story, provided by Constantine himself, recorded in his earliest hagiography, written by a companion, admirer, and Christian bishop. Eusebius Pamphilus, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, book 1, ch. 28, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 1 (Peabody: Hedrickson Publishers, 2004).

52 N. D’Anvers, Lives and Legends of the Great Hermits and Fathers of the Church, With Other Contemporary Saints (London: George Bells & Sons, 1902), 106.

53 Christopher Bush Coleman, Constantine the Great and Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1914), 74.

54 O.M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 109.

55 Ibid.

56 Genesis 17:12.

57 Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle LVIII, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

58 Ibid.

59 Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed, 25, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

60 Didache, 2, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

61 Ibid.