(Feature) Not Right

Ne Fas Day

From the Latin ne meaning not, and fas, which is more difficult to translate since there isn’t an English cognate. Roman society, like all classical societies — including those that still exist in southern India and parts of China — was considerably more “superstitious” than we are.

I put that word in quotes for two reasons. First, it’s pejorative in English, and that’s not entirely fair. It’s not like someone came down from heaven and gave the Romans a choice between sorcery and the modern scientific worldview. It was not irrational for any individual raised in that society to believe what everyone believed, just as it was not irrational for a Native American to ask the shaman to treat his illness. What other option was there?

(Yes, yes, quote Lucretius at me all you want. That’s like saying what goes on at university is representative of Western culture as a whole.)

Second, that wording implies we are not superstitious, which is false. Surveys regularly show that the majority of people (in America, anyway) not only believe that angels exist but that they are an active force in their lives, protecting and guiding them. This is not dissimilar to the Roman conception, where the world was packed with animating spirits. As I noted the other day, they had separate “gods” for the door, the lock, and the hinge!

That’s not to say there’s no difference between us and them. Of course there is, just less than is often presumed by those wanting to show how smart we are here in the future.

As is usually the case, the Romans organized their universe as a reflection of their society — or vice versa, depending on what you believe — just as we do, where everything is supposed to be based on a rule that’s the same for all. The job of all these many gods was to preserve “the divine order,” which could be perverted by malign forces, not just sorcerers and evil spirits but also the individual gods themselves, who were temperamental (as we still imagine Nature) and didn’t always stick to the plan.

In context, this makes perfect sense, which is why everyone believed it. These people were not stupid. They understood the world did not unfold at random. Most of the time, it appeared rather orderly, in fact. The heavens seemed to move with exact periodicity, but beyond that, they also perceived other forces still. Some were direct, such as that an acorn not only sprouted but always became an oak tree and never a maple. Others were indirect, such as what today we might call the economy. Of course, economic science having yet to be invented, they lacked the language to describe it. (One could make a very strong case that we still do.)

This general model explains the patent truth we still believe that the world is more or less orderly but sometimes goes off the rails.

If you think about it, the Roman practice of consulting the oracles and mediums before traveling or conducting any significant business is not terribly different than our practice of consulting a financial advisor, who’s job it is to predict the unpredictable — namely, the stock market. He doesn’t know. He just gives us something to think about, another data point, as we make our decision.

Note, I am not saying those acts are the same, just that they are similar. For one, both were available only to those who could afford to pay for such service. Measured on outcomes of course, we have improved the old models, although we still have a long way to go. (Measured on general happiness, however, we don’t seem to be doing any better.)

The Latin word fas refers to this divine order, the normal orderly way things are supposed to unfold. Ne fas then means “not right.” Something has perturbed the divine order. The world is temporarily out of sorts.

Much like the American President and European Prime Ministers serve as national pastors in times of crisis, speaking homilies to comfort us and invoking the name of God to our side in the fight against the enemy or a natural disaster or what-have-you, so too the Roman Consuls, of which there were two at any time, were the civil and religious protectors of the state.

Among their many responsibilities, it was the job of the consuls — with the help of an auger or seer — to read the entrails of a slaughtered animal every morning the Senate was in session. If what they saw was worrisome, they could declare the day ne fas, “not right,” and the Senate would not meet, lest their actions be corrupted by whatever dark forces were temporarily swirling about.

The consuls were given this job, rather than the senators, because they were supposed to be impartial, but given that it gave them the power to, for example, suspend discussion on a topic or delay a critical vote, they were often paid by patrician power brokers to declare ne fas days. Such is politics.

In response, the Senate passed a resolution declaring that any consul could only declare two ne fas days a year (or something like that), effectively putting a cap on how often the gods could take a vacation.

In the modern world, we call them personal days, but it’s more or less the same. We get up, see that things are “not right,” and go back to bed. Of course, given the potential for abuse, our employers have wisely put a cap on our emotions.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904) Baccante, 1853
Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904) “Baccante,” 1853