Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Tertullian was a conspiracy theorist: propaganda and irrationalism in Roman times and in ours

The Romans knew well the dark art that we call "propaganda" today. As an example, this image, from the Trajan column in Rome, shows Dacian women torturing naked Roman prisoners; it was part of the demonization of the enemy during the Dacian campaign of the early 2nd century AD. However, with the gradual decline of the Empire, its propaganda was becoming more and more shrill and unrealistic. Christian thinkers such as Tertullian were reacting against the absurdity of the official propaganda by contrasting it with ideas that at the time were regarded as even more absurd. 

Quintus Septimius Tertullianus (anglicized as "Tertullian", ca. 150 - ca. 230) was one of the early fathers of Christianity. Of his numerous works, we often remember a sentence that reads "Credo quia absurdum." (I believe it, because it is absurd). This exact phrase doesn't exist in Tertullian's works, but it describes well the essence of his way of thinking. He and the other Christians of that time were proposing something truly absurd: that a virgin had given birth to the son of God, that God was at the same time one and three, and that the son of a Jewish carpenter who had been executed as a common criminal was, actually, one of the three! 

Almost two thousand years of diffusion of these concepts made them familiar to us and we don't see them as absurd any more. But think of how they would be perceived in Roman times: they were the very essence of absurdity. Nevertheless, there is a logic even in absurdity and, in upholding these concepts, Tertullian was reacting to an even greater absurdity: the very existence of the Roman Empire.

The official truth of the Roman propaganda was that the prosperity of the empire was the result of the favor of the Gods, who rewarded the Romans for their moral virtues, their courage, and their performing the proper rituals. But all that was clearly becoming more and more in contrast with reality; at the time of Tertullian, the Roman Empire was not anymore the glorious war machine it had been in earlier times. Now, it was more like a zombie; a monstrous creature stumbling onward while desperately trying to hold itself in one piece against the attacks coming from the Barbarians outside and from rebellions inside. The official truth about the favor of the Gods had become a joke; a silly and cruel joke that nobody found funny any longer.

Tertullian died before the start of the third century crisis that saw the empire nearly disintegrating in a series of military defeats, civil wars, economic collapse, and currency devaluation. But, surely, the symptoms were all there much before and Tertullian could not miss that there was something rotten in the Roman Empire of his time. Indeed, he was possibly the first writer in history to identify what we call today "overpopulation," when he wrote in his "Apology" that 

...our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.

It was not just Tertullian perceiving the problem and, as a result, the Empire was being swept by a wave of new religious creeds, all of them reacting against the official Pagan religion. Christianity was seen as an especially virulent sect, and it was the object of a strong repression on the part of the authorities. If Tertullian had been living today, he would be called a terrorist. But he, like many others, as just reacting to the increasing shrill and absurd official propaganda of his times.

Now, let's fast forward to our times. What does our Imperial propaganda tell us about our prosperity? It is not any more attributed to the favor of the Pagan Gods, but to a deity we call "Science," often endowed with attributes termed "progress" and "innovation". Our Imperial armies don't give thanks any more to the Pagan Gods for their victories, but rather attribute them to semi-divine spirits that we call "smart weapons" and which are bestowed on us by the main deity, Science. And our prosperity is attributed to the ability of science to provide better and slicker tools for us. It is scientific progress that allows us to attain the eternal bliss of economic growth.

But all this is showing evident signs of fatigue, to say the least. The prosperity of the empire we call "Globalization" is rapidly disappearing and the dark menaces of climate change and resource depletion are upon us. Now, we are told that we did everything wrong and we are told that by those same people, the scientists, who have taken us to where we are.  We are told that our smart phones, our shiny cars, our wonder drones can't save us; that our economic growth can't last forever, that the years of prosperity are getting to an end. How can that be? What kind of cruel joke is being played on us?

The result is a rabid reaction that takes different forms, but that normally takes as its main target science, or what's sometimes called "official science". Science, some seem to conclude, must be betraying us and the scientists must be traitors. It can't be that crude oil is running out; it must really be abundant, being continuously recreated in the entrails of the earth by mysterious abiotic processes. And it can't be that we are destroying ourselves by burning fossil fuels; no, climate science can only be a hoax played on us by evil scientists seeking fat research grants for themselves. And how can it be that the same people who can make a smartphone can't make a fusion reactor work? No, that can't be: they are hiding from us the fact that nuclear fusion can easily be obtained inside a huffing and puffing desktop device that looks like (and actually is) a water boiler.

Many people seem to be starting to see science not just as a hoax, but as something truly evil, as when the ancient Christians had turned the Pagan Gods into devils and evil spirits. And so we see the spreading of conspiracy theories: from the idea that the water vapor emitted from airplane engines is in reality a deadly cocktail of poisons designed to kill us, to the attempt to demonstrate that no human astronaut ever walked on the Moon. It is the rise of the "New Irrationalism,"  a movement of thought still officially ignored, but growing.

Perhaps, had Tertullian lived in our times, he, too, would maintain that the lunar landing had been a hoax and that the planes we see flying over our heads are there to spread poisons in the air. Then, we would call him a conspiracy theorist. But his ideas gained ground within a dying empire and, about one one century afterward, Emperor Constantine ordered the Christian symbol, a cross, to be painted on the flags of his army that was preparing for battle. He was hoping that the new Christian God would play the role of the old Pagan Gods; a new daimon that would grant him victory. Constantine won his battle, but that changed little to the destiny of the Empire. When Rome fell to the Visigoths, in 410 A.D., it was left to another Christian thinker, Augustine of Hippo, to explain in his "De Civitate Dei" (The City of God) that the purpose of Christianity never was that of saving a rotten empire.

In the end, empires are just constructions of the human mind; structures that persist for times long enough that some people tend to endow them with the virtue of eternal life: Rome was said to be the "eternal city" and our empire seems to be based on the idea that economic growth can last forever. But empires come and go in cycles, they are as impermanent as the morning dew; they just last a little longer. So, we are going to follow the example of the Roman Empire in its descent toward disappearance. And it may well be that, up to the last moment, we'll hope that some scientific miracle will save us. Then, it will be the task of someone, in the future, to explain that the purpose of Science never was that of saving a rotten empire.

(see also an earlier post of mine in Italian) and also "The New Irrationalism" (in Spanish)