I’m not in the habit of interpreting literature for others. As a rule, I can only mislead — or else rob you of a moment of profound insight.
However, only very bad rules have no exceptions.
Borges’ delicious short story about a pair of warring theologians in the ancient world might seem to be as far from modern society, as far from relevance, as possible. But I submit to you that the following tale of murder by orthodoxy is replayed on Twitter every day.
These days, we ‘cancel’ people rather than burn them, but the raw human psychology is the same, which is of course what makes this a work of art — on my definition: a lie that reveals the truth. It touches on something profound, especially when you consider that the Christian church, here the persecutor, was itself the persecuted a few generations before.
In other words, the content of our beliefs seems to matter very little. Hence Borges’ last line.
The Theologians by Jorge Luis Borges
After having razed the garden and profaned the chalices and altars, the Huns entered the monastery library on horseback and trampled the incomprehensible books and vituperated and burned them, perhaps fearful that the letters concealed blasphemies against their god, which was an iron scimitar. Palimpsests and codices were consumed, but in the heart of the fire, amid the ashes, there remained almost intact the twelfth book of the Civitas Dei, which relates how in Athens Plato taught that, at the centuries’ end, all things will recover their previous state and he in Athens, before the same audience, will teach this same doctrine anew. The text pardoned by the flames enjoyed special veneration and those who read and reread it in that remote province came to forget that the author had only stated this doctrine in order better to refute it. A century later, Aurelian, coadjutor of Aquileia, learned that on the shores of the Danube the very recent sect of the Monotones (called also the Annulars) professed that history is a circle and that there is nothing which has not been and will not be. In the mountains, the Wheel and the Serpent had displaced the Cross. All were afraid, but all were comforted by the rumor that John of Pannonia, who had distinguished himself with a treatise on the seventh attribute of God, was going to impugn such an abominable heresy.
Aurelian deplored this news, particularly the latter part. He knew that in questions of theology there is no novelty without risk; then he reflected that the thesis of a circular time was too different, too astounding, for the risk to be serious. (The heresies we should fear are those which can be confused with orthodoxy.) John of Pannonia’s intervention –his intrusion –pained him more. Two years before, with his verbose De septima affectione Dei sive de aeternitate, he had usurped a topic in Aurelian’s speciality; now, as if the problem of time belonged to him, he was going to rectify the Annulars, perhaps with Procrustean arguments, with theriacas more fearful than the Serpent. . . That night, Aurelian turned the pages of Plutarch’s ancient dialogue on the cessation of the oracles; in the twenty-ninth paragraph he read a satire against the Stoics, who defend an infinite cycle of worlds, with infinite suns, moons, Apollos, Dianas and Poseidons. The discovery seemed to him a favorable omen; he resolved to anticipate John of Pannonia and refute the heretics of the Wheel.
There are those who seek a woman’s love in order to forget her, to think no more of her; Aurelian, in a similar fashion, wanted to surpass John of Pannonia in order to be rid of the resentment he inspired in him, not in order to harm him. Tempered by mere diligence, by the fabrication of syllogisms and the invention of insults, by the negos and autems and nequaquams, he managed to forget that rancor. He erected vast and almost inextricable periods encumbered with parentheses, in which negligence and solecism seemed as forms of scorn. He made an instrument of cacophony. He foresaw that John would fulminate the Annulars with prophetic gravity; so as not to coincide with him, he chose mockery as his weapon. Augustine had written that Jesus is the straight path that saves us from the circular labyrinth followed by the impious; these Aurelian, laboriously trivial, compared with Ixion, with the liver of Prometheus, with Sisyphus, with the king of Thebes who saw two suns, with stuttering, with parrots, with mirrors, with echoes, with the mules of a noria and with two-horned syllogisms. (Here the heathen fables survived, relegated to the status of adornments.) Like all those possessing a library, Aurelian was aware that he was guilty of not knowing his in its entirety; this controversy enabled him to fulfill his obligations with many books which seemed to reproach him for his neglect. Thus he was able to insert a passage from Origen’s work De principiis, where it is denied that Judas Iscariot will again betray the Lord and that Paul will again witness Stephen’s martyrdom in Jerusalem, and another from Cicero’s Academica priora, where the author scoffs at those who imagine that, while he converses with Lucullus, other Luculluses and Ciceros in infinite number say precisely the same thing in an infinite number of equal worlds. In addition, he wielded against the Monotones the text from Plutarch and denounced the scandalousness of an idolater’s valuing the lumen naturae more than they did the word of God. The writing took him nine days; on the tenth, he was sent a transcript of John of Pannonia’s refutation.
It was almost derisively brief; Aurelian looked at it with disdain and then with fear. The first part was a gloss on the end verses of the ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where it is said that Jesus was not sacrificed many times since the beginning of the world, but now, once, in the consummation of the centuries. The second part adduced the biblical precept concerning the vain repetitions of the pagans (Matthew 6:7) and the passage from the seventh book of Pliny which ponders that in the wide universe there are no two faces alike. John of Pannonia declared that neither are there two like souls and that the vilest sinner is as precious as the blood Jesus shed for him. One man’s act (he affirmed) is worth more than the nine concentric heavens and imagining that this act can be lost and return again is a pompous frivolity. Time does not remake what we lose; eternity saves it for heaven and also for hell. The treatise was limpid, universal; it seemed not to have been written by a concrete person, but by any man or, perhaps, by all men.
Aurelian felt an almost physical humiliation. He thought of destroying or reforming his own work; then, with resentful integrity, he sent it to Rome without modifying a letter. Months later, when the council of Pergamum convened, the theologian entrusted with impugning the Monotones’ errors was (predictably) John of Pannonia; his learned and measured refutation was sufficient to have Euphorbus the heresiarch condemned to the stake. “This has happened and will happen again,” said Euphorbus. “You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. If all the fires I have been were gathered together here, they would not fit on earth and the angels would be blinded. I have said this many times.” Then he cried out, because the flames had reached him.
The Wheel fell before the Cross (* In the Runic crosses the two contrary emblems coexist entwined), but Aurelian and John of Pannonia continued their secret battle. Both served in the same army, coveted the same guerdon, warred against the same Enemy, but Aurelian did not write a word which secretly did not strive to surpass John. Their duel was an invisible one; if the copious indices do not deceive me, the name of the other does not figure once in the many volumes by Aurelian preserved in Migne’s Patrology. (Of John’s works only twenty words have survived.) Both condemned the anathemas of the second council of Constantinople; both persecuted the Arrianists, who denied the eternal generation of the Son; both testified to the orthodoxy of Cosmas’ Topographia Christiana, which teaches that the earth is quadrangular, like the Hebrew tabernacle. Unfortunately, to the four corners of the earth another tempestuous heresy spread. Originating in Egypt or in Asia (for the testimonies differ and Bousset will not admit Harnack’s reasoning), it infested the eastern provinces and erected sanctuaries in Macedonia, in Carthage and in Treves. It seemed to be everywhere; it was said that in the diocese of Britannia the crucifixes had been inverted and that in Caesarea the image of the Lord had been replaced by a mirror. The mirror and the obolus were the new schismatics’ emblems.
History knows them by many names (Speculars, Abysmals, Cainites), but the most common of all is Histriones, a name Aurelian gave them and which they insolently adopted. In Frigia they were called Simulacra, and also in Dardania. John of Damascus called them Forms; it is well to note that the passage has been rejected by Erfjord. There is no heresiologist who does not relate with stupor their wild customs. Many Histriones professed asceticism; some mutilated themselves, as did Origen; others lived underground in the sewers; others tore out their eyes; others (the Nabucodonosors of Nitria) “grazed like oxen and their hair grew like an eagle’s.” They often went from mortification and severity to crime; some communities tolerated thievery; others, homicide; others, sodomy, incest and bestiality. All were blasphemous; they cursed not only the Christian God but also the arcane divinities of their own pantheon. They contrived sacred books whose disappearance is lamented by scholars. In the year 1658, Sir Thomas Browne wrote: “Time has annihilated the ambitious Histrionic gospels, not the Insults with which their Impiety was fustigated”: Erfjord has suggested that these “insults” (preserved in a Greek codex) are the lost gospels. This is incomprehensible if we do not know the Histriones’ cosmology.
In the hermetic books it is written that what is down below is equal to what is on high, and what is on high is equal to what is down below; in the Zohar, that the higher world is a reflection of the lower. The Histriones founded their doctrine on a perversion of this idea. They invoked Matthew 6:12 (“and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”) and 11:12 (“the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence”) to demonstrate that the earth influences heaven, and I Corinthians 13:12 (“for now we see through a glass, darkly”) to demonstrate that everything we see is false. Perhaps contaminated by the Monotones, they imagined that all men are two men and that the real one is the other, the one in heaven. They also imagined that our acts project an inverted reflection, in such a way that if we are awake, the other sleeps, if we fornicate, the other is chaste, if we steal, the other is generous. When we die, we shall join this other and be him. (Some echo of these doctrines persisted in Léon Bloy.) Other Histriones reasoned that the world would end when the number of its possibilities was exhausted; since there can be no repetitions, the righteous should eliminate (commit) the most infamous acts, so that these will not soil the future and will hasten the coming of the kingdom of Jesus. This article was negated by other sects, who held that the history of the world should be fulfilled in every man. Most, like Pythagoras, will have to transmigrate through many bodies before attaining their liberation; some,the Proteans, “in the period of one lifetime are lions, dragons, boars, water and a tree.” Demosthenes tells how the initiates into the Orphic mysteries were submitted to purification with mud; the Proteans, analogously, sought purification through evil. They knew, as did Carpocrates, that no one will be released from prison until he has paid the last obolus (Luke 12:59) and used to deceive penitents with this other verse: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). They also said that not to be evil is a satanic arrogance. . . Many and divergent mythologies were devised by the Histriones; some preached asceticism, others licentiousness. All preached confusion. Theopompus, a Histrione of Berenice, denied all fables; he said that every man is an organ put forth by the divinity in order to perceive the world.
The heretics of Aurelian’s diocese were of those who affirmed that time does not tolerate repetitions, not of those who affirmed that every act is reflected in heaven. This circumstance was strange; in a report to the authorities in Rome, Aurelian mentioned it. The prelate who was to receive the report was the empress’ confessor; everyone knew that this demanding post kept him from the intimate delights of speculative theology. His secretary — a former collaborator of John of Pannonia, now hostile to him — enjoyed fame as a punctual inquisitor of heterodoxies; Aurelian added an exposition of the Histrionic heresy, just as it was found in the conventicles of Genua and of Aquileia. He composed a few paragraphs; when he tried to write the atrocious thesis that there are no two moments alike, his pen halted. He could not find the necessary formula; the admonitions of this new doctrine (“Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen? Look at the moon. Do you want to hear what ears have never heard? Listen to the bird’s cry. Do you want to touch what hands have never touched? Touch the earth. Verily I say that God is about to create the world.”) were much too affected and metaphorical to be transcribed. Suddenly, a sentence of twenty words came to his mind. He wrote it down, joyfully; immediately afterwards, he was troubled by the suspicion that it was the work of another. The following day, he remembered that he had read it many years before in the Adversus annulares composed by John of Pannonia. He verified the quotation; there it was. He was tormented by incertitude. If he changed or suppressed those words he would weaken the expression; if he left them he would be plagiarizing a man he abhorred; if he indicated their source, he would be denouncing him. He implored divine assistance. Towards the beginning of the second twilight, his guardian angel dictated to him an intermediate solution. Aurelian kept the words, but preceded them with this notice: “What the heresiarchs now bark in confusion of the faith was said in our realm by a most learned man, with more frivolity than guilt.” Then the dreaded, hoped for, inevitable thing happened. Aurelian had to declare who the man was; John of Pannonia was accused of professing heretical opinions.
Four months later, a blacksmith of Aventinus, deluded by the Histriones’ deceptions, placed a huge iron sphere on the shoulders of his small son, so that his double might fly. The boy died; the horror engendered by this crime obliged John’s judges to assume an unexceptionable severity. He would not retract; he repeated that if he negated his proposition he would fall into the pestilential heresy of the Monotones. He did not understand (did not want to understand) that to speak of the Monotones was to speak of the already forgotten. With somewhat senile insistence, he abundantly gave forth with the most brilliant periods of his former polemics; the judges did not even hear what had once enraptured them. Instead of trying to cleanse himself of the slightest blemish of Histrionism, he strove to demonstrate that the proposition of which he was accused was rigorously orthodox. He argued with the men on whose judgment his fate depended and committed the extreme ineptitude of doing so with wit and irony. On the 26th of October, after a discussion lasting three days and three nights, he was sentenced to die at the stake.
Aurelian witnessed the execution, for refusing to do so meant confessing his own guilt. The place for the ceremony was a hill, on whose green top there was a pole driven deep into the ground, surrounded by many bundles of wood. A bailiff read the tribunal’s sentence. Under the noonday sun, John of Pannonia lay with his face in the dust, howling like an animal. He clawed the ground but the executioners pulled him away, stripped him naked and finally tied him to the stake. On his head they placed a straw crown dipped in sulphur; at his side, a copy of the pestilential Adversus annulares. It had rained the night before and the wood burned badly. John of Pannonia prayed in Greek and then in an unknown language. The fire was about to engulf him when Aurelian finally dared to raise his eyes. The bursts of flame halted; Aurelian saw for the first and last time the face of the hated heretic. It reminded him of someone, but he could not remember who. Then he was lost in the flames; then he cried out and it was as if a fire had cried out. Plutarch has related that Julius Caesar wept for the death of Pompey; Aurelian did not weep for the death of John, but he felt what a man would feel when rid of an incurable disease that had become a part of his life. In Aquileia, in Ephesus, in Macedonia, he let the years pass over him. He sought the arduous limits of the Empire, the torpid swamps and contemplative deserts, so that solitude might help him understand his destiny. In a cell in Mauretania, in a night laden with lions, he reconsidered the complex accusation brought against John of Pannonia and justified, for the nth time, the sentence. It was much more difficult to justify his own tortuous denunciation. In Rusaddir he preached the anachronistic sermon “Light of lights burning in the flesh of a reprobate.” In Hibernia, in one of the hovels of a monastery surrounded by the forest, he was startled one night towards dawn by the sound of rain. He remembered a night in Rome when that minute noise had also startled him. At midday, a lightning bolt set fire to the trees and Aurelian died just as John had.
The end of this story can only be related in metaphors since it takes place in the kingdom of heaven, where there is no time. Perhaps it would be correct to say that Aurelian spoke with God and that He was so little interested in religious differences that He took him for John of Pannonia. This, however, would imply a confusion in the divine mind. It is more correct to say that in Paradise, Aurelian learned that, for the unfathomable divinity, he and John of Pannonia (the orthodox believer and the heretic, the abhorrer and the abhorred, the accuser and the accused) formed one single person.